Helping an Elder Leave Behind Their Pet

Assisted living does not always welcome furry companions. Here's how you can help.

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Question:

Dear Candid Caregiver: As far back as I can remember my grandmother has had a dog. For the last 10 years, this dog has been Tippy, a small, male, mixed-breed that has been an ideal companion. The problem is that Grandma is getting less able to care for herself — let alone Tippy — and she is going to need to move to an assisted living facility (ALF).

I’ve checked around, and while some local ALFs will let people bring their cats, none locally will allow them to keep a dog because dogs need to be let outside, among other excuses. I’d take Tippy, except my landlord won’t allow dogs either. We’ve found a local couple who said that they would take Tippy, but how do I handle this with Grandma? It’s hard enough for her to give up her home. Now it’s Tippy, too. — Dog Lover

Answer:

Dear Dog Lover: The thought of your grandma having to give up her dog at this time brings tears to my eyes. This is her companion, her child, her barrier against loneliness. It seems so cruel. Yet, the reality is that many facilities won’t allow people to bring their dogs.

This is partly because dogs need to be fed and let out, but also there is the fact that some of the facility’s residents don’t like dogs or are afraid of them. The last “reason” puzzles me because many of these same facilities, as you saw, will allow cats, and it’s not unusual in any group for people to be badly allergic to cats. Still, even with the documented successes of care home concepts that incorporate animals into daily life, the reality is that it’s difficult to find a place that will accept a canine companion.

Still, I’m not certain that it would hurt anything if you took the time to make an appointment with the administrators in the most promising local homes. If Tippy is well behaved, you could even bring him with you while you make your case. Ask if you can “test walk” the dog in the halls. This could bring such excitement among residents that the administrator will bend the rules for Tippy. Don’t get your hopes up because relaxing rules for one person is tricky. If your visit with Tippy does nothing else, it may plant the seed for future changes.

For now, we’ll have to assume that your grandma can’t take Tippy with her, so the best you can do is ask the people taking Tippy to bring him to visit your grandma regularly. As time goes on, it may be smart to gradually lengthen the time between visits because with time, your grandma is bound to adjust to her to new life, and hopefully enjoy it. If that happens, the visits from Tippy could become a negative influence, dragging her memories back to her old life, which isn’t wise.

So re-evaluate these visits as time goes on to see if they still bring more joy than sorrow. I’d suggest that you plan on seeing grandma shortly after each visit from Tippy to assess how she copes with his continual departure. If you can’t do this, ask the staff to evaluate your grandma after the visits to see if she’s doing well after seeing him or if she returns to grieving each time. You can make adjustments based on these evaluations.

There’s no easy way to accomplish this, Dog Lover. Expect your grandma to need what could be a lengthy (to you) adjustment time. This is not uncommon, and shouldn’t be surprising. Her situation is worse than many because she’s losing both her home and her companion, but ALFs are great places for socializing, which often serves as a distraction during the adjustment period. Do what you can to help your grandma adjust by spending time with her.

I want to leave you with this thought. Caregivers are prone to feeling sometimes crushing guilt when they need to make the decision to place a loved one in assisted living or a nursing home. Remind yourself that you are making this change for your grandma’s safety and well-being. Most caregiver guilt is unearned. You are doing your best, so pat yourself on the back and continue with that in mind.

See more helpful articles:

Aging-in-Place and Assisted Living: Pros and Cons of Each

Family Conversations: Where Do Your Parents Want to Live Their Last Years?

Aging in Place or Assisted Living: It's About Choices