Category Archives: Aging

Dog Lessons On Living- Part 2

In my previous post I dealt with how two dogs modeled how to deal with serious illness and impending death. The two examples were from our current Border collie, Buddy, and our long deceased Shetland sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy. Their love of life and passion for their favorite activities persisted despite their physical challenges.

If we abandon the arrogant notion that humans are somehow completely different from other animals and instead recognize our common genetics, anatomy, physiology, needs, and behaviors, then animal behavior can become a potential assist for our lives.

I am reminded of a story from my recent book, Carrying The Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales about Mary from Minnesota. This story, like many others in the concluding chapter of my book, took place aboard a fictitious cruise ship and demonstrated great perseverance of some physically handicapped folks in the face of adversity. The very real members of a group that Trudy and I accompanied had been organized by a national Parkinson’s Disease organization. Despite Mary’s advanced disease requiring  her to have a feeding tube, tracheostomy, urinary catheter, wheelchair, and and full-time attendant, she had demanded to go on the cruise.

Unfortunately Mary didn’t make it and passed away during the cruise. When speaking that evening by phone to her daughter in far away Minnesota, I learned to my surprise that the family had  expected Mary to die on the cruise. After recovering from my shock, I further learned that Mary had a lifelong habit of taking on great challenges. Despite her failing health Mary in recent years had undertaken skydiving, ridden a burro down into the Grand Canyon, and been strapped to a dogsled in Alaska. Mary refused to give in to her illness nor would she be prevented from trying new, exciting, and life changing thrills.

From Sailaway Chapter of Carrying The Black Bag

While Mary was only one of our passengers with Parkinson’s disease, all of them despite their balance issues dealt with the swaying of the deck and with the many challenges of shore excursions and beach activities. They also managed the dietary differences that at times limited the effectiveness of their medicines. None of these brave people shied away from the challenging experience, showing their zest for life and denying their illnesses control over their lives.

Now I know not all people with PD would make such a challenging journey. Indeed life is like a marathon and all of us hit the wall at times. Some persist and break through the wall while others are unable to do so.

Health and vibrant aging can be such a gift but persistence is also demanded

Both Buddy our Border collie, Taffy our Sheltie, and Mary refused to give in. All lived their lives to the greatest extent possible. I don’t know where Mary derived her zest for life, but she might have witnessed it in her pet. For whatever reason, Mary had learned to live her life as fully as she possibly could, believing that the quality of her life was more important than the number of days she lived.

Therein may lie a lesson for us all. Our challenge may be to garner as rich and full a life as possible. We all will likely be faced with challenges. Some of us will continue to strive and others will find an easier but less fulfilling way to live. Nothing is wrong with either approach, but our pets may have at least modeled the more courageous approach to life. Without it would we have even considered such a course of action?

Dog Lessons on Living

Forty years of practicing medicine and having lived long enough to acquire some gray hair have allowed me to observe people dealing with illness and impending death. These challenging periods prove difficult for sure , but I believe our pets can help to cope with and even model helpful behaviors that benefit their owners. The mindfulness of the pet owner becomes necessary in order to learn these pet-assisted lessons.

At our house we’ve had two experiences that I wish to share that have brought me to this conclusion. Our Border collie, Buddy, unfortunately injured himself many years ago while leaping over a cattle guard. I found him shortly after the accident, dragging his paralyzed hind limbs. We were to learn that Buddy had ruptured a disc that had extruded into the spinal canal and traumatized his spinal cord. After evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation Buddy slowly recovered. He now has the reasonable use of his hind legs and moves about without any assistance. For this we are incredibly grateful.

Buddy had always loved to run and herd cattle. His racing around the ranch with his tongue flapping deliriously and with a goofy look plastered across his muzzle has for me defined unbridled enjoyment. With time he has regained the ability to both run and herd, although not with quite the same proficiency as prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Buddy still loves to ride in the pickup, watch the cattle, and when needed to jump out of the bed of the pickup and do a stint of herding.

It strikes me that Buddy during his convalescence never gave up on himself, nor did he permanently abandon his valuable role as chief herder on the ranch. Despite lingering weakness, he continues to carry out his job with typical Border collie passion and enthusiasm. A job for a Border collie is vital. As the old saying goes, “If a Border collie doesn’t have a job, he’s liable to become self-employed.” Trust me, when this happens it’s never a good thing!

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Our second pet-assisted experience resulted with our Shetland Sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy, and occurred years ago when we lived in Lubbock. Taffy’s favorite activity and what she most anticipated was her evening walk. She would become so excited when we presented her leash for our walk. Unfortunately Taffy eventually fell ill and was diagnosed as having cancer. While we knew the cancer would eventually take her, we were given the encouraging, if incorrect, prognosis by her vet that she had at least weeks if not months to live.  Despite Taffy not feeling well, she still agitated quite demonstrably at the end of each day for her walk.

Taffy during her healthier days

I distinctly remember her recruiting us that last night. Trudy and I dutifully leashed up Taffy and began a slow trek around our block. Taffy seemingly sniffed  every tree we encountered and observed the goings-on in the neighborhood with her eyes glistening with excitement. Unfortunately despite her wanting to, her energy gave out a third of the way around the block. She simply was unable to muster the strength necessary to walk any further.

On recognizing this I reached down to gather our sweet dog in my arms and then continued our walk around the block. Taffy gazed out from the crook of my arm and noted the happenings of her final trip around the neighborhood. Later that night she died peacefully in her bed. I like to think Taffy died  happy having made one more glorious trip around her block.

The thing is, Taffy continued to do what she most enjoyed despite her serious illness. Her willpower and determination continued despite her substantial depletion of energy. It seems to me that a broader and more personal message exists for pet owners much like the messages both Buddy and Taffy have given us.

I will continue discussing this topic in a subsequent post and plan to give a few human examples. These people-related corollaries will come from my book, Carrying The Black Bag.

Please share your thoughts as to what you may have learned from your pet regarding illness or impending death.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Reflections on Getting Older- Part II

Not long ago I had the pleasure of hearing Col. R.E. Cole recount his experiences as Jimmy Doolittle’s copilot as depicted in the book and movie, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. This was my favorite early war film. I like many others of my generation grew up steeped in heroic films about World War II. The movie starred Van Johnson as Captain Ted W. Lawson, Phyllis Thaxter as his wife Ellen, Robert Walker as corporal David Thatcher, Robert Mitchum as Colonel Bob Gray, and the inimitable Spencer Tracy as Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. Heroism was on full display and made you proud to be an American.

220px-thirtysecondsovertokyo-1

Colonel Cole is now 101-years of age and, while frail, is still sharp. I must assume the events depicted in the movie and book proved to be the signal event of his life.

A recent article, My Flight With a Doolittle Raider, was published in Texas Coop Power. In it the author, Matt Jolley, describes a day in 2010 when he and Colonel R. E. Cole strapped themselves into a World War II-era B-25 bomber and roared off the runway for a spin. Once in the air the owner of the plane  turned the controls over to Colonel Cole.

I believe Cole’s thoughts may have gone back to April 1942 when he and 79 other volunteers, only four months following Pearl Harbor, managed to take off from the swaying deck of the U.S.S. Hornet. They flew at the absolute outer fuel limits of their planes to drop a limited bomb load on Tokyo. While the physical damage was limited, the attack by Doolittle’s Raiders tremendously elevated American morale and diminished that of its enemy.

B-25 bombers awaiting takeoff from the deck of the Hornet

B-25 bombers awaiting takeoff from the deck of the Hornet

Imagine the satisfaction Colonel Cole must have experienced when he relived this event a few years ago. The author of the piece saw no boyish transformation in Cole, nor did he see a giant grin. What he witnessed was the quiet confidence of a man in full control of his airplane. I believe Cole must have felt a surge of satisfaction, reliving those seminal moments that has given his life such special meaning.

Colonel Cole is the last living Doolittle Raider. At his public speaking appearances, he is now attended closely by his daughter. He still loves to share his stories with others. With Veteran’s Day two days ago, it’s only fitting to remember and honor Colonel Cole and the other gallant men for their service and sacrifice to our nation.

But in another sense, what do events such as this one mean to the individual who experienced them. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if everyone who reaches old age could have the opportunity to re-experience their own signal  life’s event.  While this may not be possible, it suggests another option.

Why not allow an older person to reflect (tell their story). Our lives as story have such great importance for our own understanding. I only wish I had listened more closely to my grandparents’ stories. This inter-generational transfer of knowledge is good for both the listener and the speaker.

With the upcoming holidays, the opportunity exists to deepen understanding of the narrative of the older members of your family. I hope all will take advantage of this, not only to learn the stories, but to assist in the meaningful development of the aging process for your loved ones by allowing them to reflect deeply on what was important for their lives.

I would love to hear how this works for you.

To Be Continued

 

 

Reflections on Getting Older

You are likely familiar with the verse written by Robert Browning:

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.

When I first heard this verse, albeit at a much younger age, my thoughts were something like, “bunk, hogwash, senseless prattle, horse feathers!!!!”

Robert Browning 1888

Robert Browning 1888

Over the years though I’ve gained greater appreciation for what Robert Browning was getting at.  In part, admittedly, this was due to my professional interests in Gerontology and Geriatrics. But this was largely book learning and short on personal experiences. Now that I’m living the aging process, I can better understand both the challenges and gifts that accompany it.

I hope in a series of blog posts to explore this topic further and relate the accepted features of aging and also the personal anecdotes. As always, I look forward to reader’s comments.

I suppose what made me think about this topic was an eightieth birthday party I attended several weeks ago. My son’s father-in-law was turning eighty. Alissa, his daughter threw him a no-presents birthday party, and instead requested everyone submit a letter describing what her Dad had meant to their lives. An astounding 88 letters arrived! These were carefully cataloged by Alissa and presented to her Dad.

Now the really good part: Roger on seeing all this and better understanding the impact his life had on others- teared up and became quite emotional (well for a Norwegian anyway). Now this is a stoic man who was a very successful businessman, a real numbers cruncher type who had played athletics at a very high level. He is a stoic Scandinavian-American not prone to public displays of emotion. But a public display of emotion he showed. Why was that?

I began thinking about this and melding my inner thoughts with what I knew about developmental psychology. While I have taught a college course on this topic, I’m really not an expert, but I wish to share my musings.

On entering “the third act” of our lives, most folks begin summing up of their accomplishments and  coming to grips with areas in which they were less successful. This phase of life often includes the deepening of relationships, dousing the inner fires, reducing the drive for accomplishments, and the sharing wisdom with others. This is a phase when mentoring of younger people often takes place along with the passing on of meaningful experiences to others .

The testimonials offered about Roger impacted his personal developmental journey, as it did mine. The birthday party affirmed his life’s worth and informed him of long forgotten kindnesses and other positive impacts on others. This timely theme for the party blended perfectly with the very developmental process he was undergoing. What a stroke of genius by Alissa for organizing the event in this way.

If we are fortunate, we all will age to a ripe and healthy old age.

Health and vibrant aging can be such a gift

Health and vibrant aging can be such a gift

The more of life I experience, the greater I recognize that Robert Browning’s wisdom, “the best is yet to be.” Let’s hope so.

 

To Be Continued