“When I’m Sixty-Four”

When I'm Sixty Four 64“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?  – The Beatles, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’

Below is a Facebook post I shared earlier this week. It touched a lot of people, so I’m re-posting it here in hopes that it’ll reach an even bigger audience.

[I’m not looking for a pat on the back: I get paid to do this job, even if it’s not much.]

But if this topic this upsets you, then….well, in many ways, it should. Because it is sad, and it is scary. And what I’m about to describe could be any of us.

Pet owner support for elders is not on most radars of animal welfare groups. This needs to change. As I’ve written before: “Oh, the Times, They Are a Grayin’!”

* * *

So, today sucked.

I had to tell someone that her cat — her sole companion — is probably going to die soon.

That someone is a senior who lives alone in a small SRO (single room occupancy) in New York City. She is disabled and can’t leave the apartment. Around 9:00 am I went to her apartment, picked up her cat (“J”), and transported “J” to the low-cost vet clinic across town in the middle of a snowstorm. He hadn’t eaten in a week and was vomiting.

She took in this cat 2 years ago from another elderly woman who passed away. When the police discovered the deceased woman’s body, they found “J”. They were going to send the “J” to the shelter, where he would most likely be killed, but through a series of events, she agreed to take him instead.

WheelchairNow “J” is dying. His kidneys are failing. He won’t eat. Any/all treatment plans involve bringing him to hospitals and clinics around Manhattan, which is not accessible for someone in a wheelchair and not affordable for people on a limited income.

My client needs this cat. “J” is her life. If he goes, I worry that she will, too. Probably nothing sudden; just a slow deterioration of spirit, which could eventually affect her health, and ultimately her spirit. It’s hard for us to imagine when we have support networks around us. But my client doesn’t have those. She has “J”.

When I got home from the vet, we talked for a long time. There were tears, anger, fear, and more tears. She held “J”. She asked a lot of questions, but I could offer very few answers. It wasn’t my place to make the tough decisions, anyway.

We talked about what would happen if “J” died at home that night. She recalled the veterinarian who put her last cat to sleep. “He was an angel.” Her cat, “T”, was humanely euthanized in the vet’s office. Her mobility was better then, so she could be there to say goodbye and to hold him.

Things have changed. Now she has less money, less mobility, and feels more pressure to ease “J’s” pain. She decided that if “J” dies tonight, she’ll wrap him in plastic bag and place him in the freezer in her tiny kitchenette that stores her meals on wheels food and the tuna she buys him, when her budget permits.

Someone — maybe me — will come by collect his body and bring him to the crematory. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we can do.

If “J” makes it through the night, we’ll have more options to explore. But these options come with a price tag, and even the options that are affordable can be inaccessible to people with impaired mobility.

* * *

I thought back to my dog Sarge’s death.

Photo Credit: Jennie Ruff

Photo Credit: Jennie Ruff

Death is never ideal, but each passing is different. When Sarge was on his last breaths, I had come home from work to find my husband Thad on the floor next to the couch. Sarge was sitting there, cloudy-eyed and out-of-sorts, being pet. Our other dogs were eerily calm and quiet.

Sarge, who was almost 17 then, had suffered a massive seizure. Thad and I knew it was time to say goodbye. I don’t remember what we said or if we even made eye contact, but I remember us  collecting our things and moving Sarge comfortably into our car. We were fortunate to have a car.

We were losing Sarge, but Thad and I still had each other. We had our other dogs. And we’ll likely have more dogs in the future, as we live through the decades ahead of us, hopefully in good health and decent wealth. Most of all, we had the money to pay for a humane death for our dear Sarge.

As Thad drove us to the vet and I sat in the backseat with Sarge, sobbing uncontrollably, I wept for the first pet I’d ever said goodbye to. I never had pets growing up, so death was still something new. But I never, ever, ever felt alone. And I never worried how I’d put food on the table if I spent the money to humanely end Sarge’s suffering.

* * *

I hope my client knows I’m thinking of her tonight.

In a world-class destination like New York City — a place that’s home to some of the most resourced animal welfare organizations in the world — you wouldn’t expect this to be happening. But it is, and more often than we realize.

Sarge“End dog fighting! Shut down puppy mills! Spay and neuter! Adopt, don’t shop!”

All noble and critical causes, indeed. But if we’re genuinely concerned about the issues facing one of the fastest-growing segments of our population — the 65+ crowd — then how about:

“Help the elders with their pets!”

It’s not sexy. And, quite honestly, it’s not the kind of thing I’d put on a t-shirt or a bumper sticker.

But it’s important no matter how you look at it: numbers, potential impact on shelters, ethics and morality, and so forth.

I will do my part to try and supplement the lack of support for elders with pets. I hope that you, the humane organizations, and the shelters out there will, too.