A New Life | September 2015
by Patricia Panaia
When I first met Tom in 1999, he stated definitively that he was allergic to cats. “That’s a show stopper,” I said just as firmly.
A few years later, we were married on a sunny hilltop in California. Cats by then had become an integral part of our lives. We picked up strays, cared for them together, and even took them to Europe when my work transferred us there. I hadn’t realized just how important cats were to us until I met Dr. Jane Brunt at a veterinary association meeting this past August.
It had been a rough year up to that meeting. The prior 12 months we had lost two of our three cats. First Scratch, a fearless gray and white tomcat. Exactly one year later, we lost Idgie, a sweet, friendly black cat with the most perfect face I’d ever seen. They lived long lives and traveled the world with Tom and me, but losing such companions of some 20 years is deep heartache. This was only part of the story.
The other part was Tom’s situation. The overt signs appeared about five years ago but because Tom was so young, the doctors didn’t correctly diagnose him. Either that or, as I believe now, there’s a kind of stigma or denial in talking about this disease directly: Tom has Alzheimer’s. Looking back, I see that even when his doctor knew, he would only call his condition “Alzheimer’s like,” and when my friends talked about it, they used hushed tones.
By January of this year his disease had progressed so that even with the help of caregivers, he wasn’t safe at home. I made the gut-retching decision to place him in a “memory care center” – another indirect way of saying “a place to live for people with Alzheimer’s disease.” I’ve learned a lot about Alzheimer’s these past years, including how it is one of the least-funded diseases in terms of government research. And how the numbers of people with or who will develop Alzheimer’s is reaching epidemic proportions.
So, in the 12 months before I met Dr. Brunt, our home had gone from truly bustling, with three cats and five different caregivers a week to just Moka, our 16-year-old third cat, and me. The house—and we—were empty.
Things were about to change.
Very soon after Idgie passed a caring colleague asked politely, “What if some of us arranged for a kitten to show up at your door?”
“I appreciate the thought,” I said. “But I don’t think that’s a good idea. I need to consider Moka. Besides, all my cats have somehow just…appeared.”
The universe works in mysterious ways. The very next day there was an all office email: “Orphaned Kitty Needs a Home.” I said yes, and a 5-week-old little guy, who soon would be named Jax, entered all of our lives. He would have a profound impact.
You see, at the time I met Dr. Brunt, Tom had been declining more. Even though he was in a safe place and had better caregivers, he was struggling to walk and talk. I was worried sick leaving for this conference. I had arranged for a cat-sitter to care for Jax and Moka…then got another idea just before I left for my trip.
“Frankie,” I told his main caregiver. “Please tell Tom that he needs to go to the house while I’m gone to care for Moka and the new kitty.” Frankie often took Tom out on rides, when he was up to it.
As I was pretending to sip wine, listening to Dr. Brunt explain how the CATalyst Council’s mission is to raise awareness of the value of cats, the universe continued to conspire. I felt my phone buzz.
Frankie had at that very moment sent a note and a picture: “Hi Pat, wanted to let you know that Tom had a great day today. He was walking really well and talking up a storm. I kept telling him that we needed to go take care of Moka and Jax and he was so excited. Here are Jax and Tom playing together.”
Not only did this little guy add fun new life to our home, he authentically brought life back to Tom. Today, Jax gets Tom out of the memory care center on a mission—to reconnect with what had been in our lives for the past 15 years: our cats. Jax makes regular visits to Tom, too. Jax also visits the other residents who all want to hold him close to their hearts. Jax gives life to all of them.
There are still rough days, but better than any pill, doctor visit, or anything else we’ve tried, Jax has given us all miraculous healing. Moka has a new spring in her step too!
Dr. Brunt asked if I would share this story. She explained something that I always knew but realize now that I never acknowledged directly: there’s a stereotype that cats are “less than” or somehow not as valuable as dogs, that they are aloof, not as good of companions as dogs, and don’t need companionship themselves. CATalyst exists because cats don’t have as strong of a voice or equal share of our care, attention and respect. They are just not as important. I couldn’t help but think of the similarity with how our society considers Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe sharing this story can help, even a bit, to change our views on both fronts.
Patricia Panaia is the VP of Sales & Marketing at Vets First Choice, based in Portland, Maine. She met Dr. Jane Brunt at the VetPartners semi-annual meeting in Kansas City.