Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Balancing Act: The Challenges of Caring for an Elderly Parent and/or Elderly Pets


"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."

- Wayne Dyer

We have a saying in my family when we just know a situation is building to a blow-out of some sort... when it begins to feel inevitable that the wheels are just going to fall right off. When, how and what the fallout will be simply remains to be seen.

Such was my Christmas "Vacation" a few years ago - a misnomer if ever there was one.

I worked really hard in the months leading up to December - too hard, in retrospect - and was looking forward to a much-needed break over Christmas, spent doing not much at all: relaxing, reading, watching movies, going for walks...

The universe, however, was so not on the same page.

For back home in my hometown, my elderly Mom - in dire need of a hip replacement - was requiring a lot more help to stay in her home. So my family was making her meals, getting her groceries, helping care for her cat, running errands, taking her to appointments and so on. They really needed a break, so I agreed to have my Mom out to my place for the two weeks over Christmas.

Now even though our Mother was 88 years old and down to 5'2" and 107 pounds, it was a testament to the sheer strength of her spirit that she could still manage to bring a fully functioning home (that would be mine) and the residents in it (that would be me and my thirteen-year-old dog, Soda) to a grinding halt.

Correction: Soda came to a grinding halt. I, on the other hand, was soon in overdrive, literally running back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom (my bedroom!) delivering meals to my Mom and retrieving dishes. Since the hip-pain rendered her pretty much immobile, my caring for her was to achieve two goals: 1) fatten her up a little before surgery and 2) give her a much-needed rest.

Me not so much.

For my Mother required five meals a day: two breakfasts (yes, like a Hobbit), lunch (soup, sandwich, fruit, veggie and dessert), a late afternoon cup of tea and pre-dinner snack, and then dinner (on a heated plate). Leftovers were occasionally accepted but not encouraged. Plus, of course, there was the grocery shopping, the never-ending dishes, the serving of meals, and the stopping and listening to stories while delivering said meals.

I managed to make it through Christmas with only one minor meltdown. But then, two days after Christmas, the precariously attached wheels of my supposedly fully functioning life fell right off. And, as is usually the case, it was a seemingly small bump in the road - that had nothing to do with my Mom - that set me off. So I vented to my Mom about what was bothering me and felt much better afterwards.

Soda, unfortunately, did not. When she went to stand up that evening, she couldn't. When I managed to help her up, she staggered a few steps then fell down. I got her up again and she stumbled out of the house, down her little ramp and into the backyard where she collapsed. I called the emergency vet hospital and told them the symptoms. They told me to get her to emergency NOW - easier said than done considering she weighs over a hundred pounds.

I still don't know how I did it but once I managed to get Soda to her feet, it was almost like little angel wings helped carry her from the backyard to the car. She wouldn't be able to walk on her own again for nearly a week.

She spent the next four nights in emergency and was diagnosed with "Old Dog Vestibular Disease," which is an inner ear imbalance - similar to vertigo - possibly brought on by a stroke. Interesting... since my stress level was in the stratosphere.

At any rate, regardless of the cause, the effect on Soda was that she was completely off balance, extremely dizzy and nauseous - and her head titled to one side at a rather rakish angle. From an emotional perspective, it was heartbreaking to see her like this. From a practical perspective, now my days were spent feeding and watering my Mom at home AND driving the half hour back and forth (twice a day) to the animal hospital to visit Soda, hand-feed her (because she wouldn't eat much for anyone else) and help the staff take her outside to do her business (it took three people to do this).

When we were outside on the fourth night, Soda managed to take a few staggering steps on her own over to the fence to lean against because she was still so dizzy. Still, the vet phoned me the next the morning and told me they were sending Soda home.

"Because when you're with her," said the vet, "she at least tries to walk on her own. But when you're not here, she won't even try."

And so it came to pass that now I had two pretty much immobile 107 pound charges to care for in my little bungalow by the sea: one in my bed; the other in my yard - for Soda had decided that her recovery would best take place in the great out of doors versus, say, somewhere a little more convenient like the living room floor.

I thought I was busy before. Hah! Now I was feeding my Mom five meals a day AND trying to keep a rather large and very sick old dog from freezing to death. To this end, Mom suggested I put the sheepskin rug under Soda and pile wool blankets on top, so she wouldn't get pneumonia. Though a lot of work to get the sheepskin under Soda, this worked... until she got to her feet, stumbled a yard or two and promptly collapse again. So I would repeat the process.

Oh - and did I mention Soda also now needed to be hand-fed five small meals a day?

So this went on for a few days and honestly, I just didn't think Soda was improving enough. And was I really being fair to her? Around dinnertime on New Year's Day, I got an answer - albeit an indirect one. I was trying to fish Soda out of the bushes at the side of the house in the dark, when three teenage girls appeared in my driveway.

"I'm over here!" I called out.

One of them turned on her flashlight and pointed it in my direction. I was, at this point, halfway out of the bushes, trying to hold up Soda's back end.

"Are you okay?" one girl asked.

"Yeah," I said. "I mean, I'm getting kinda used to this. My dog's been really sick and she just needs a lot of help."

Soda - head still tilted to one side, slowly lurched towards them... probably looking more like a small black bear that'd just been shot than an old dog.

"Gee," said another one of the girls, "she doesn't look so good."

"I know," I said.

Soda proceeded to stumble past them and flop on the front lawn. It was starting to rain.

I sighed and turned to the girls. "So what can I do for you?"

It turns out they were Mormon missionaries.

"Do you believe in God?" one girl asked.

"Yeah," I said, rather suspicious of their timing.

Then, I kid you not, the same girl asked me, "And how does God appear in your life?"

"Well," I said, "call me crazy - but it seems like this situation might be a good example."

I had no idea how right I was. For after they left, I sat on the front lawn beside Soda. She was sound asleep again - except that now, I couldn't leave her alone because she was three feet away from a busy road. And it hit me: the time had come to let Soda go.

So after yet another good cry, I went inside and, with one eye on Soda, took a deep breath and called the mobile vet on call. A woman answered right away. I told her Soda's situation - and that I thought it wasn't right to be keeping her in this state.

"I think it would be best," I said, "if you came and put her down."

"I hear what you're saying," said the stranger on the other end of the line, "and I understand your concern. And believe me, it is under very rare circumstances that I would disagree with a pet owner because you know Soda; I don't. However, Old Dog Vestibular Disease is one of those rare circumstances where I am going to strongly encourage you to reconsider. Soda is eating and drinking and able to walk on her own... those are all signs that she is healing. She just needs time. Keep her warm and safe and let her rest and there's an 80% to 90% chance that she'll fully recover."

I hung up the phone with a completely different attitude and a newfound sense of hope.

Maybe Soda was going to pull through? Maybe I just needed to have faith in her ability to heal - at her pace - and my ability to provide the conditions in which she could. And furthermore, maybe the vet was an example of how Divine Intervention can appear in our lives: someone to give us hope when we are no longer able to find it ourselves.

At any rate, that vet saved Soda's life - and she probably inadvertently saved mine, too. For let's be honest here: if my home and the residents in it had truly been "fully functioning" prior to Christmas, then merely helping out my mom for two weeks wouldn't have caused the wheels to fall off.

Rather, my Mom's visit turned out to be a much-needed catalyst that, once the dust had settled and the dog was on the road to recovery, forced me to take a good hard look at my work-centred life. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that Soda's symptoms were that of a creature totally off balance?

So I asked a friend - a massage therapist - if she thought it was possible that our issues can manifest in the health of our pets.

"Absolutely," she said. "Soda is picking up on your energy... she's your canary in the coal mine. That's what stress will do to you."

Then, a couple of weeks later, I told another friend how concerned I was that Soda, though doing much better, was now spending all of her time outside... away from me.

"Well," he said, "she's either preparing to die out there - or she's resting where she's most comfortable. She knows what she needs."

True enough. By February, Soda made a 100% recovery. In fact, I would say she was more mobile and alert than she was before Christmas - because she lost some weight! And when she felt comfortable enough, she even came inside again... to be with me.

As for my Mom, once she was back home again, she called to tell me the doctors were happy because she gained 14 pounds thanks to the feeding frenzy at my place!

That Christmas taught me that when things started to fall apart all around me, I had no choice but to put everything else on hold and attend full-time to caring for my elderly Mom and senior dog. Once I relaxed enough to recognize the lessons hidden in the challenge, I began to realize what a gift that difficult experience was.

"The way you look at things is the most powerful force in shaping your life."

- John O'Donohue, Anam Cara; A Book of Celtic Wisdom

And once the crisis had passed, I really strived to live and work at a slower pace and enjoy the time I had left with Soda because I knew it was limited. Day by day, I figured out how to lead a more balanced life because I realized that if I couldn't learn to do this for myself, then the least I could do was do it for the ones who were closest to me.

Sadly, my Mom passed away suddenly in March - four days after her hip surgery. Soda died six weeks later. Though heart-broken by both deaths, I am very grateful for the time we had together over Christmas. For as it turned out, caring for my Mom and Soda was also my final gift to them.

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