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My Husband's End-of-Life Companion: A Cat Named Maggie

During my husband's final months with Alzheimer's, a borrowed cat brought unexpected joy to our lives

By Susan Stasiak

At least twice a week, Chuck asked, "When are we getting a cat? You said we could get a cat!"

Chuck loved cats. I loved cats, too. But as Chuck's spousal caregiver, I dreaded having more responsibilities — I had plenty of duties. Though, I did feel guilty. Chuck never asked for much compared to what he'd already given up on this unplanned end-of-life journey we plodded through together. Six years after the Alzheimer's and COPD diagnoses, he could no longer travel. A cat in our now-permanent Sarasota, Florida home would be Chuck's last cat.

A calico cat sitting on a notebook. Next Avenue
Maggie  |  Credit: Susan Stasiak

If I said no, how could I make it up to him?

Luckily, I spotted a magazine ad for robotic therapy pets to soothe dementia patients. Would he accept a mechanical cat? It might work. After all, a mechanical therapy cat wasn't too far-fetched from what Chuck already enjoyed — a stuffed animal he named "Penelope Penguin." Penelope was a gift from my 8-year-old grandson, who had a thing for penguins. Chuck talked about Penelope often and arranged her daily on the sofa — sitting up or lying down.

Chuck said nothing, but his squinted-eye contact and an ever-so-slight scowl on his face signaled to me he was suspicious of something going on.

So, naturally, I assumed the mechanical pet would be a reasonable compromise. Chuck would get a lifelike cat with some form of companionship. And I would get no fur-laden furniture, no litter clean up, and no food-demanding "meows" first thing in the morning.

Looking for a Compromise

"How's Penelope doing today?" I asked Chuck on one of his more lucid days. He heard me but didn't respond, though I had his attention.

"I notice you move Penelope when you change position. But today, you're up, and she's lying down. Is there something going on?"

Chuck said nothing, but his squinted-eye contact and an ever-so-slight scowl on his face signaled to me he was suspicious of something going on. It's funny how he could sense that.

"Honey, are you aware there are lifelike stuffed cats like your penguin, but with moving features? They sit on your lap like real cats, moving their heads, tails and even purr."

Still, no response. 

"Chuck, do you think you might want a cat like that?" He sharpened his focus but said nothing. Then, after a long pause, Chuck roared, "I want a real cat!"

Mmm, I guess that wasn't such a good idea. I mumbled something about enjoying Penelope Penguin, then dropped the subject. So much for mechanical cats.

Enter Maggie

Wanting to amend my insult, I desperately scanned my mind to find agreeable options. Then it came. What about borrowing a cat for a while? A real cat. Maybe my sister Joyce, who lived nearby, might let us borrow her cat, Maggie. We could do a test drive over the weekend to see if Maggie would like our home and us.

I described the lending idea to my sister, and she readily approved. She rationalized that Maggie would get more attention from us since her dog Daisy always nosed into visitors' engagement toward the cat anyway. Then I explained our plan to Chuck. He didn't disagree. So, Joyce and I prepared for a weekend trial and Maggie arrived for a visit. Chuck watched intently.

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If I could have written a job description for the perfect cat in our home, I would have missed some of Maggie's subtle but effective qualities as she seamlessly acclimated to our condo. As an older cat, her pace matched ours, still with some curiosity and playfulness to spare. And her companionship was perfectly aligned with our lifestyle.

On breezy days, Chuck and Maggie watched the pond's water —the rippling surface reflected the sun with dancing, mesmerizing sparkles.

She'd saunter onto the screened porch, smelling nature up close, then choose one of the two pond views to spy on the blue herons or screeching limpkins that took off or landed near her watch.

On most mornings, Chuck joined her on the lanai. Soon, they became nature buddies, entertained by the usual creatures of interest — the curved-bill white ibis wading in the pond's edge about 20 feet from the porch and the noisy anhinga sunbathing with charcoal black outstretched wings looking injured and croaking like frogs.

The Gift of 'Miss Maggie'

On breezy days, Chuck and Maggie watched the pond's water — the rippling surface reflected the sun with dancing, mesmerizing sparkles. Though Chuck's inner landscape had declined from his dementia, Maggie's presence was a connection not dependent on a spoken language.

Miss Maggie, affectionately renamed by Chuck, had a mellow temperament — reserved and subtly charming, like Chuck. As a "tortie," Maggie's orange, black, and white tortoiseshell was striking but mottled like her sweet, understated nature. She reminded me of what I loved about Chuck's gentle qualities that drew me into his secret garden slowly for delightful discoveries over our years together.

Some cats keep a boundary with people until the cat decides when to get cozy. Maggie let Chuck know when she was ready for him by parking herself in his line of sight right next to her brush. Chuck had a job, and he did it eagerly almost every day.

Maggie's unique gift to me was her gentle paw tapping on my arm each evening at 8:45, reminding me, 'It's a good time for a brushing, Susan.' Even when I was engrossed in a computer project, she'd tap me precisely at 8:45 p.m. If I didn't respond immediately, she'd follow with another light tap on my arm within ten seconds. Nothing pesky, just a nearly imperceptible touch. Those predictable prods were reliable memory aids for me — the perfect time to give Chuck his nightly medications.

A Comforting Presence

The fun with our new family of three far outweighed the inconveniences I'd imagined. Maggie enriched our lives, linking Chuck and me in simple ways. Since Chuck's evolving diseases erased complex conversations, we gained a new type of bonding through Maggie. Our laughter from Maggie's playful displays of speed and agility as she unpredictably scampered through the condo were heart-centered amusements.

It's been over two years since Chuck passed away, and Maggie is a permanent resident in my home now.

Maggie's test run stretched into a year, and Chuck asked, "So, how long will we have Maggie?"

"As long as Maggie needs to stay," Joyce answered.

It's been over two years since Chuck passed away, and Maggie is a permanent resident in my home now. I wonder if Chuck knew how much comfort Maggie would be for me. Our Miss Maggie lovingly waits for me to come home at any time; she cuddles with me every night; and I never hear any irritating "meows" for food in the morning.

Thank you, Chuck. And thank you, Joyce.      

Susan Stasiak
Susan Stasiak was a 7-year spousal family caregiver for her partner Chuck, who had dementia, COPD, and congestive heart failure. Susan is now a caregiver advocate, author, and speaker for the mental health preservation of caregivers. Susan transferred her 30 years-experience with psychological-behavioral practices in the workplace to her caregiving to reduce emotional turmoil and limit stress for her loved one and herself. Read More
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