We Miss You, Kochi-Dog

We were one of the families that adopted a dog just after 9/11. Matt and I were just starting our life together. We had planned to visit my family in India, around our one year anniversary. Instead, like many Americans, we sat in front of the TV in shock. Our trip was no longer possible.  Then we saw a funny looking mutt named Snoopy flash on our TV screen during a public service announcement.

the former snoopyWeeks later, we took Snoopy home from the Humane Society. We renamed him Kochi, after the place in India that we were no longer able to visit. Instead, we experienced our first lessons in parenting.  The dog (like us) was one year old. He was hyper and endlessly curious. At obedience class, we learned that we had to be consistent in our messaging, or all hell would break loose.

Gradually the dog fell into familiar patterns, and so did we. There was something deeply comforting about daily routines revolving around our new (slightly freakish) family member.

Inside the house Kochi displayed the affection of a kitty cat. He rubbed up against your leg, sat at your feet, straddled any part of you he could get close to. After a dog-sitting stint, my mother said she had never before known a dog to wake her up in the morning by rubbing against her bed.

relaxed, but ready to pounceOutside, the dog lost all loyalties. Life in the outdoors was totally governed by scent. Kochi’s MO was find-and-conquer.  (This may go back to his hardscrabble days living on a farm, before we adopted him, and his mixed Husky heritage.) Walking with us downtown, Kochi always sniffed out the chicken bones and pizza crusts hidden under the bushes. The fleeting scent, sight, and sound of a deer running through the park or neighborhood set him off at a fast pace. And always at the most inopportune times, he found and attempted to kill skunks. He must have been sprayed at least 7 times. The most embarrassing tale involved bringing him to a nature preserve and him immediately clobbering a duck (who survived).  Then again, there was also the time he jumped out of the half-open car window (while I was driving) to catch a squirrel; another uncomfortable memory I immediately repressed.

Given the dog’s unpredictability, we wondered how he’d be with a baby in the house. We followed everyone’s advice; Matt brought the baby hat back from the hospital, which he sniffed readily. When baby came home, he licked her face. The baby then became a child who pulled at his tail, teased, and dropped lots of delicious food crumbs. With her, Kochi was cautious, but affectionate. In 6 years only once did he bark at her; when she accidentally jumped on his foot doing gymnastics. The rest of the time Kochi was a gentle friend and brother, utterly patient and forgiving. L became his primary playmate and caretaker, whistling for him to come, letting him outside, and planning his birthday parties.

feeding kochiFast-forward to Kochi-dog’s thirteenth birthday. He ambled up the stairs, after the line of treats carefully set out for him. That year he almost missed the bone at the end of the path of treats. And getting up the stairs wasn’t easy. I started to refer to him as the elder in our house. We compared him to Great-Gramps, the other elder in our family whom my daughter loved dearly. Both were a bit lazy. They moved slower. They had little aches and pains. Both were near the end of their lives. We talked about making sure to give them lots of love before they go.

Around that time, our daughter set up a “salon” in the corner of the living room. Next to the hairbrush and the spray bottle was a pile of rawhide bones. All types of salon customers were welcome, and all went away happy.

Six months lakochi learns to stayter our dear pup no longer lived for food, companionship, and exercise. He walked with pain, barely ate, and slept for longer and longer periods. As my mother-in-law said, “Kochi is only 10% here.” This was a shocking reality, coming from the dog who seemingly had a million lives; he always bounced back. But a non-wagging tail raised questions about his quality of life. And when he stopped eating for good we knew we needed to call his vet.

Kochi’s vet did something extraordinary. She came to the house to help Kochi die peacefully. This decision was and still is especially hard for me. As a hospice volunteer, I help to make human lives comfortable during the dying process. But I never end a life. I was prepared to continue giving comfort care to our dog Kochi. But what was the point, if a few days of pain and suffering could be avoided?

Comfort care at the end of Kochi’s life looked like this: Matt and I peacefully saying goodbye (petting aby the fireplacend consoling), as he relaxed in his favorite bed in the living room, by the fireplace. I say relaxed, because the vet made sure he was drowsy with sedative. But even with his eyes closed, his nose was still sniffing away, sensing that someone new and interesting was in the room. While renal failure and arthritis slowed him down, dear Kochi never lost his curious spirit.

As I write this, I think I hear a deep sigh coming from the living room, by the fireplace. Smacking teeth and deep sighs have for years been part of my writing process, I now realize. During my working at home days, when Kochi relaxed, I did too, and vice versa. And that’s how it was in the end too.

That first night he was gone, we put on headlamps and tramped out into the dark and snowy backyard to find the holes he had dug the summer before. Each hole got decorated with his favorite bones. Later we joked about the squirrels having a field day. Inside, we hung his dogtag on a nail by the door. We lit a candle, and we looked at pictures and reminisced.

For anyonkochi and his devoted parentse who has lost a beloved pet/family member, you know how hard it is. I still want to feed Kochi the leftover scrambled eggs and Matt still wants to let him out at night.  Three weeks later, we persevere, but there is a huge hole in our lives. We talk about missing him; that’s all we can do.

Of course there is comfort in a life well-lived and the gifts he gave. And relief. Today, thunderstorms are in the forecast, and I am relieved that Kochi will never again have to endure that trauma.

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Thank you Mom and Rani, Karen, and Anh – Aunties to Kochi – for the fantastic pictures and memories. I will always treasure these.

If you have a favorite memory of Kochi to share, or a story about saying goodbye to a pet or a loved one, all are welcome here, as usual.

By the way, in case there are questions, it seems appropriate to me that my 100th post on this blog about aging with dignity and quality of life should be about our beloved pet. This blog has been a space for me to grieve and celebrate the cycle of life. Writing is one way I process such things. Thank you for sharing in this process with me, dear, loyal readers.

With love, Meika

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“Getting On,” A Poignant HBO Comedy about Aging & Death?

Friends, HBO has a new show, called “Getting On” about the women who care for elder women in a facility. It is a comedic drama. Has anyone seen it? Is it laughs at the expense of elders? I tried to upload the home page to see a preview and it crashed my computer, so I don’t have a review.

However, after hearing the Fresh Air interview with the creators, I now know that it is based on their experiences advocating for their mothers as they aged in institutions. And the ways in which they talked about the beauty of time spent caring for them moved me, as well as their attempts to honor the work that care workers do. And I like Molly Shannon, who is in the show. So there it is.

If you’ve seen it, I’d love to see your review!

Gratitude and Sadness, Gramps is Gone

May-July 2012 016Dear readers,

I have had a hard time writing, because the elder who inspired my research and so much more, my last remaining grandparent, and one of my best friends in life, is gone.

This week we – Gramps’ family – will gather in his home one last time for Thanksgiving. We travel with hearts full of gratitude and heavy with sadness.

A line from my Gramps’ favorite Streisand songs runs over and over in my head: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

I now see that I really needed my grandfather, and he was there for me. I feel so lucky to have had 40 years of unconditional love and support from Gramps. I have learned so much about politics, movies, well-being, kindness, and generosity from this man. And I am convinced that Gramps made it his primary goal to boost the confidence of those he cared about. So I always felt needed and loved by him. How cool is that?

I am thankful for the closeness of the family he left behind.  In many ways, Gramps fostered and sustained family togetherness and ritual that we will always treasure. Like modeling gratefulness. One funny Thanksgiving Gramps announced how proud he was that his family wasn’t into drugs. In fact, our success (above and beyond being drug-free) was largely his doing – he ensured that we all had the the college education he wasn’t able to afford. And there he was, cheering for us the whole way.

There is so much left to say, but I will leave it here for now.

I feel deep gratitude for the many gifts my grandfather shared, and the memories…

We will leave a big piece of pecan pie out for you, Gramps.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Older & Bolder Campaign in Ireland

index“I want to grow old at home.” That’s Irish citizen Mabel Gargan, age 90, representing the “make home work” activist message coming out of the Older & Bolder coalition.

A friend saw this poster in the UK and sent it along – thanks Kate!

A quick google search and I see that the Older & Bolder campaign in Ireland was about stopping state pension cuts and cuts to home health care. The campaign wrapped up in July with these words to its supporters:

It has been an absolute privilege to campaign with so many enthused individuals and groups on important issues relating to growing older in Ireland. Despite what has been a tough period for advocacy we have, with your energy and action, had positive influence and success. We offer a heartfelt thanks to everyone who signed a petition, engaged their local TD, contributed to a workshop, partook in media interviews or attended a demonstration.

Your passionate and persistent campaigning defended the State Pension; ensured pre-election promises became Programme for Government commitments; convinced politicians of the absolute need for the soon-to-be-produced National Positive Ageing Strategy; pushed for Make Home Work and the right to age well at home to be made a reality; and resisted the cuts to home care services.

Congrats to elders across the sea fighting for an age-friendly society! 1

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Grandparents’ Invisible Work

ist2_2897117_scribbles_grandparentsDuring a recent family vacation, the grandparents were busy as usual. They were working in the background, so their labor was mostly invisible. But their efforts made for a successful trip. Without them, I’m not sure what we (adults and kids) would have done.

*The rental kitchen was stocked with foods we all like (including the picky grandkids).

*Kids had library books to read, piles of them.

*Local restaurant menus were available on the counter. (Who do you imagine picked them up?)

*The youngest kiddos had playmates and general supervision at all times, even while slumbering.

*And believe it or not, the grandparents had even more to give – including compliments, hugs, and intelligent commentary at all times – even when you knew they must be exhausted.

Try to thank them for their efforts, and they’ll likely turn it back on you, saying they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But this is my attempt to value that work – the work they do on a regular basis for us, their kids.

Grandparents Day is Sunday, September 8th. So let’s honor the fact that:

According to the Census Bureau, growing numbers of children in the United States are living with a grandparent. In 2010, about one in 14 U.S. children (7 percent) lived in a household headed by a grandparent—for a total of 5.4 million children, up from 4.7 million in 2005.

Whether they live with grandchildren or not, grandparents are more involved in their grandchildren’s lives than ever before, whether they live close or far.

Let’s take time to acknowledge the important impact these inter-generational relationships can have.

Thanks to you, grandparents!

 

 

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My Summer as Doula for the Dying

imagesA friend described the situation perfectly. “You are pretty much a stranger, walking into a home situation that can be so personal and vulnerable.”

This is what I, as a home hospice volunteer do. And hopefully, in that context of stress and sadness and pain, I can offer some solace through listening and just being a consistent presence.

My personal project this summer was to deepen my understanding of death and dying, and by association, living. As a medical sociologist and social gerontologist, I had taught the courses, but did I really know anything about dying, from reading books and grieving my own losses? And what could one learn about living, through comforting those in the end stages of their lives? This wasn’t a formal research project. This was just me, going deeper.

As the summer comes to a close, I have no idea how to sum up this experience. I have rubbed feet, held hands, recorded memories, and mostly just sat and listened, to everything from changes in breathing, to tearful stories of parents lost, gratitude for a life lived, or frustration for not having answers.

Being a hospice volunteer enables me to work at being present with myself and with others. To value human connection and vulnerability. And, of course, hospice is about life transitions, for all involved. (In many ways, my research on how people cope with retirement as a life transition is not so different from coping with the unknown at the end of life.)

Us volunteers are trained to be present with those who are dying. To become more comfortable with death, we write our own obituaries, and participate in an extended meditation on our own death. We learn how to help a patient transition from couch to chair, how to work an oxygen tank, how to think through ethical dilemmas (like gifting). But the real training is in the doing. Because dying is as complex as living.

The wife of a dying man told me she tried so hard to “lick it” – his terminal disease. That was her training, she said, to work hard and focus on the problem, and you can solve it. But it didn’t, and now she must accept this, and wait for the end.

A dying woman only spoke to me in Romanian, I in English and rudimentary Spanish. I think we managed to connect.

A man slept in a hospital bed, positioned in former dining room of his home. “I will shop and he will sleep the whole time,” his wife said. “He is at the very end stages.” But minutes after the garage door closed, he came alive, reaching for something elusive above his head, mumbling to himself, and then he slept again.

Another hospice patient sat watching the Food Network, munching on spice drops. “This is my only addiction,” she admitted. Later, her husband and caretaker reminisced about their travels, and wondered if he would ever travel again.

My role during the 2-3 hour shift is to sit with folks. But the hospice team involves many, including chaplains who talk to patients of any background, helping them to forgive, to right past wrongs, to let go (one even performed an informal divorce ceremony at a patient’s bedside!); social workers who get to know extended families, life stories, and bucket lists; and nurses and doctors and psychologists trained in grief support, pain management, and comfort care.

An ongoing life lesson for me is accepting the unknown. I feel like I learn this over and over as a parent, and now as a doula for the dying.

My summer project is really a life project. So I will continue doing hospice work, and see where it takes me.

Nursing Assistant in Training: The Importance of Touch

evan 1This is the third in a three-part series written by Evan Chartier, a Colgate student spending his summer training to be a nursing assistant (CNA) and preparing to write about this for his senior thesis.

One of the most important senses in my life is touch. I love the feel of wind tickling across my ears as I stand on top of a mountain, the heat of a warm shower, and the sparks that fly when I grasp my partner’s hand after a long time apart. It is an essential aspect of my favorite life experiences, and a significant way in which I interact with the world around me.
In Professor Loe’s class “Sociology of the Life Course” we learned that the importance of touch does not disappear as we get older. In fact, it may get more important with age. As friends, family, and partners move around the globe and eventually pass away, and as we adapt our lives to live in changing bodies and circumstances, opportunities to explore touch can become increasingly rare. I witnessed this theory in action during the clinical internship portion of my home health aide and certified nursing assistant training class. The resident in my care –we’ll call him Steve– did not have a single visitor during my shift the entire week. Most of his siblings have passed away, he was never married, and he had no children. Therefore I was also the only person to touch Steve between the time he woke up, 8 AM, and 2 PM, when I left each day.

When I interviewed my classmates, the vast majority of them were anxious about providing a bed bath to their elder. I certainly was as well (just see my previous blog posts!). The bed bath is one of the first things that must be done for each resident, and it is a procedure that is repeated every day. Beyond the necessity to smell nice, a bed bath prevents infection, skin breakdown, and falls that often happen in the shower. We learned these important aspects of a bed bath’s preventative care properties in our textbook.

I was surprised to discover that the bed bath was also a unique touch based experience. A proper bed bath is a cooperative effort between the nursing assistant and the elder. The water should be “just right”; not too hot, and not too cold. The entire event is a repetitive process -wash, rinse, dry- that moves predictably from the face to the arms, chest, legs, back, perineum area, and buttocks. The speed and intensity of each touch must take into account both the elder’s preference and the nursing assistant’s abilities like a cooperative dance that, if too fast, robs both of a unique bond yet, if too slow, ruins the perfect temperature of the water.

I could always tell that the resident in my care enjoyed his bed bath. Although my clinical instructor quickly became frustrated with my slow pace and the hour long process, I believe that my elder appreciated the extra care. He rarely spoke, and never mentioned the bed bath. However each time that the washcloth touched his face, he would nuzzle into it the way that a puppy wiggles into a quality head rub. Steve’s appreciation of my care could be seen easily on his face, and we developed an unspoken connection as we experienced the power of touch.

-Evan

See the other posts in the series here:

http://agingourway.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/nursing-assistant-training-part-2-clinical/

http://agingourway.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/stories-from-a-nursing-assistant-in-training-part-1/

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Meika Loe

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