The Power of Pets

Julie walked slowly in to a San Francisco multiple sclerosis support group I led, leaning on her walker. Her first line of introduction was, “I don’t know why I’m here. It’s not like you can help me or anything.”

Julie was 63 and had been diagnosed with MS for about ten years. Her speech was a bit slurred from weakness in her facial muscles, but she was smart when you got to know her. She was short and had Italian good looks, though her dark brown hair looked as if it could use some brushing. She wore a baggy brown sweater and sat with her shoulders drawn up as if she were uncomfortable or cold.

There were 14 people in the group, and most of us thought Julie was depressed. She had reasons to be. She had relocated from Chicago at the urging of her SF-based children, but they rarely visited. She had left her friends behind and hadn’t made new ones. And she had a chronic disabling disease.

Still, it was hard not to be annoyed with her sometimes. Anything group members suggested, she rejected, answering most ideas with, “That wouldn’t work for me,” “I already tried that,” “I couldn’t do that,” or some similar dismissal.

I thought Julie was a sweetheart. She usually brought snacks, like fruits or cookies to the meetings and paid attention when others were speaking. But as months went by, and she couldn’t shake her depression, we unconsciously started to tune her out, protecting ourselves from her hopelessness.

She started missing meetings, and nobody cared much. As leader, though, I had to call her once in a while to see how she was doing. (It’s an MS support group rule to prevent suicides.) I have to admit I saw calling Julie as a chore, a responsibility, not something I looked forward to.

These calls tended to be short.
– So how’s it going, Julie?
– OK, I guess. You don’t really want to know.
– You getting out at all? You know it’s not good to stay inside all the time. Maybe you’d like to come to another meeting. We could probably get you a ride…
— Well, maybe. I’ll let you know. I have to go now. Bye.

I would usually hang up feeling frustrated and a little sad. I knew not to take her rejection personally, but I wished I had some better way to help her.

After a couple of months, we had a call where Julie seemed a little perkier.
— I’m glad you called. I have a question for you.
— OK. I’m listening.
— My neighbor Miriam wants me to take care of her cat while she goes back East. Should I do it?
I didn’t know what she should do, but she sounded hopeful, for the first time in our acquaintance. So I tried to answer.
— Well, what do you think? Do you want to do it?
— Kind of. I like cats. I’m just afraid it will be too much for me.
We explored what she would have to do and how she could do it with her limitations. She voiced concerns for about ten minutes, the most talking I had ever heard her do without complaining, while I just listened. Finally, she decided.
— I guess I could do the feeding and litter box cleaning while sitting down. I’ll buy an electric can opener. What do you think?
I said it sounded like a plan, and what did she have to lose, anyway?

So she took the cat in, and it turned out a great match. She found cats easier to get along with than people. “They don’t ask so many questions,” she told me.

Three months later, Julie came back to a support meeting, and she was smiling! Miriam had been quite pleased with her cat-sitting. She had told all her friends and had helped Julie put ads on Craig’s list and in local pet stores. Julie now had one or more cats living with her most of the time. Sometimes the cats came to her; sometimes she moved in with the cats and did regular house-sitting.

The felines seemed to like her, and their owners did, too. They found that Julie was really good at listening to people, if they didn’t expect too much talking from her. She was actually making money, making people happy, and she felt really good about it.

We could really see a change in her. She was sitting straighter and speaking more clearly. “It’s great to have you back,” said a man named Frank, who had often complained to the group before about Julie’s negativity. “I’ve never seen you smile like that.”

I wanted to see what this was all about for myself, so I went over to her apartment on a day she was taking in a new visitor. I spoke with Michael and Janet, a couple in their 20’s who were dropping off their cat, Keiko. “Julie’s amazing,” Michael said. “She gives Keiko undivided attention, and gives it to us too when we come.”

Julie thinks the money is nice, but pet-sitting means more to her than that. “It lets me know I’m still here,” she told me.

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2 Responses to The Power of Pets

  1. I absolutely agree with your assessment of pet therapy. All my friends tell me that I became a different (better) person when I got my dog. I don’t think I will get another one when this one dies, but I will almost certainly offer to walk dogs — one at a time.

  2. Sharon Pierson says:

    It is often cited that at senior living facilities the residents act and feel much better on days that the therapy animals arrive. Pets give us unconditional love and as Julie said they don’t ask too many question but they do provide non-judgmental advice – just pet me or walk me and everything will be fine.

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