By Katie Dudley
My grandmother recently made the transition from living alone to a nursing home. My family credits her toy poodle, Mittzy, with helping her remain in her home as long as she did.
After my grandpa died, Mittzy became my grandma’s single responsibility, and more importantly her purpose. They went on walks, no meals were ever skipped–as evident by her slight obesity–and even when company was at the house to help feed or let Mittzy out, they weren’t allowed.
My grandma suffers from macular degeneration, a medical condition that results in a loss of central vision due to retinal damage, so it became difficult for her to do everyday things such as use the oven. My parents, aunts and uncles remain in my hometown, so she always had a lot of company; but no one had the time to commit to the day to day chores.
So my family hired a caretaker.
Her name is Donna, and she came by a few times a day to tidy up, help grandma to bed or just sit and play cards. She became more of a friend and part of the family than a hired caretaker.
When it was time to make the decision to move into the nursing home, one of the hardest things for my grandma was the thought of separating from Mittzy and Donna.
My parents knew that her quality of life would drop should she lose the two of them the same time she was leaving a home she’d lived in for more than 60 years. So as they work to manage grandma’s dwindling life savings, they have found a way to keep Donna in the budget. Not as a caretaker for my grandma anymore, but for Mittzy.
Donna lives a few miles outside of town and keeps Mittzy overnight. She has a job at a gas station in town, so when she goes into work she drops Mittzy off at my grandma’s house for the day. When she gets off work, she picks her up and the two head over to the nursing home to visit grandma.
The decision to continue to pay Donna might not make sense to everyone. But for my family, keeping my grandma connected with the things that bring her the most joy is worth it.
Not every senior with a pet has the luxury of a Donna or the means to support their pet. Unfortunately, the decision where to allocate already limited resources is one that older pet owners have to face.
Luckily there are organizations such as Animeals, a service of Interfaith Ministries Meals on Wheels, that help alleviate those tough decisions by providing donated dog food to seniors who have trouble providing it on their own. According to the Houston Chronicle, Animeals delivers up 80,000 pounds a year to about 450 senior pet owners in the Houston area.
For years, studies have shown the health benefits of owning a pet: lower blood pressure, better mental health, more active lifestyle. With roughly 74 percent of Texans placing extreme importance on remaining in their homes as long as possible, small things such as the ability to own a pet play a big role.
The other thing that plays a role in allowing that to happen is the availability of quality caregivers such as Donna.
Right now, nearly 13,000 Texas nursing home residents have low care needs, meaning community-based long-term care might be the better option. Nursing home screening systems as well as wages for quality community-based caregivers create a barrier to seniors’ ability to remain in their homes while receiving care.
Better community based long-term care and the help of organizations such as Animeals can not only help seniors stay in their homes longer, but reinstate that sense of purpose we all live for.
Katie Dudley was an intern at AARP Texas this spring and is a graduate student at Texas State University.