Henry is a 10-year-old standard poodle, weighs 50 pounds, stands 2-feet-3-inches tall and has liver cancer. I am a 67-year-old woman, 5-feet-tall and tipping the scales at 85 pounds — with brittle bones, bad eyes and bursitis in my shoulder.
This dog is the first I’ve ever had and he’s taught me unexpected lessons about being responsible for another living creature and what it means to experience unconditional love. He sleeps on my bed and licks my face when I cry, which I do anytime I think about losing him.
Yet I’m deep into figuring out the right kind of dog to replace him with when he dies. I’m unsure if that makes me a horrible person or simply a realistic one.
My hairdresser, who has never been without a menagerie of animals, loaned me his copy of the ASPCA Complete Guide to Dogs, which I hope Henry isn’t reading over my shoulder, since the vet tells me poodles are as smart as 8-year-olds. My dog walker is certain the diagnosis is wrong because while Henry’s not as frisky as a pup, he sure doesn’t act like he’s dying.
That said, he is dying, as we all are, and the odds are I’ll outlive him. A dog this size may have been appropriate when I was a decade younger, and living in the suburbs rather than New York City, but now is too much for me to handle. Since the average dog lives about a dozen years, that means I must replace him with something suitable for an 80-year-old.
I feel vulnerable, like a champagne flute that has miraculously bounced off a quarry tile floor, when it should have shattered.
My move almost two years ago from a house built in 1840, with a leaky basement, a steep staircase and door frames too narrow for a walker, let alone a wheelchair, was preemptive — sort of. There’d been eye surgery that required hiring an aide, primarily because I couldn’t drive. There was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with trees crashing around me in the black of night and a week with no electricity or hot water.
Like-mother-like-daughter, I knew the time was right and I wanted to be in control.
So now, I am preparing for downsizing the dog.
Meantime, I double-knot my sneakers every day, like a toddler, lest I trip on them. I hold onto the railing when climbing stairs. Henry yanks on the leash at the sight of a pigeon or a squirrel, and can pull me to the sidewalk in an eye-blink if my concentration falters. Thus the cell phone stays at home when we walk. He has yet to be responsible for a broken bone. But that’s a matter of luck, not prudence.
My knees and elbows are usually skinned, the heel of my hand is black-and-blue and lately I see stars from the pain shooting through my shoulder. I know I must succumb to reality when this dog is gone. Old women — and that’s what I am now, like-it-or-not —should not have dogs who are half their size.
Fear of Falling
One-in- three adults over 65 will fall every year, according to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) in what is the leading cause of non-fatal injuries for this age group. One-in-ten, or 2.5 million people, will wind up in the emergency room; 734,000 will be hospitalized and 255,000 will die — numbers that have been rising for a decade. According to the National Council on Aging, that converts to an emergency room visit related to a fall every 14 seconds and a death every 29 minutes.
The direct medical cost of all this falling is $34 billion a year; the indirect cost in quality of life is incalculable. When the elderly are asked about their greatest fear, this is it, ahead of crime, running out of money or, in some surveys, winding up in a nursing home.
The CDC says falling is an avoidable public health problem, and urges regular exercise for strength and balance, plus osteoporosis screening, vision exams, a review of medications that might cause dizziness, Calcium and Vitamin D supplements and home safety measures like grab bars in the shower, adequate lighting and getting rid of clutter.
Choosing the right dog is not on the prevention list, although it should be, given the widespread belief that animals benefit the elderly and the sobering, downright scary, data about falling.
Then there is the experience of falling itself. I can attest that it’s far different late in life, when the ground is much farther away than it was in childhood — and not just because you’re taller.
The time it took to hit the pavement then seemed a nanosecond. Mind empty, you’d tumble, bounce back up and off you’d go. Now, from when I lose my balance until I hit the ground, seems an eternity, long enough to review every nightmare scenario.
Don’t throw out your dominant hand to break the fall! You need that hand to open the door, unscrew bottle caps, do your work. Is this ice? Because ice is completely unforgiving. You’ll shatter a hip, wind up in surgery, need a catheter, get a urinary tract infection, experience none of the burning or fever typical of a younger patient — and thus go undiagnosed until delirium sets in, which may be mistaken for dementia.
And the fear doesn’t end when you land. You lie very still, mentally taking a full-body survey. A bruise feels like this, but a break feels like that: You know if you’ve had a broken bone — I’ve had several.
Until the self-check, head-to-toe inventory is complete, panic is not permitted. Only when it’s clear that you’re mostly OK is it safe to react.
Sometimes, for me, I’m bathed in cold sweat, like the back end of a bad hot flash, if memory serves. Sometimes I cry in relief. And, only then do I get up. Slowly, like an invalid, I walk home. For hours afterward, and sometimes days, I feel vulnerable, like a champagne flute that has miraculously bounced off a quarry tile floor, when it should have shattered.
Searching For The Next, Best Dog
Absent advice from the CDC —or the ASPCA or the American Kennel Club — I’m left to my own devices about a dog replacement. A miniature poodle – 11 to 15 inches tall and 14 to16 pounds — is the obvious choice since toy poodles (10 inches high and about six pounds) are silly “pocketbook’’ dogs and probably yappy.
Pure bred or mutt? Adult or puppy? From a breeder or a rescue organization? The web offers help at Waagintrails.org, Petfinder.com or the AKC site, with entries for all breeds. My early search has persuaded me I don’t want a barker (Welsh terrier), a drooler (St. Bernard), a shedder (collie) or a snorer (bulldog).
In the street, I admire beagles, dachshunds, American cocker spaniels, Portuguese water dogs and an ever-growing assortment of poodle mixes, from labradoodles to havapoos. I interrogate the dogs’ owners, although none have a bad word to say about their choices, sort of like Lake Wobegone where “all the children are above average.’’
Well, my above average dog needs a walk now. My sneakers are double-knotted. Maybe I’ll see the next dog of my dreams while I’m out there.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- Bad Dog or Wrong Owner? Challenging Pets for Anyone Aging in Place
- How My Old Dog Is Teaching Me to Age Gracefully
- Do Our Dogs Look and Act More Like Us Over Time?
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