In September 2014, it was my privilege to participate in the IAOPCC‘s Pet Bereavement Certification program led by Dr. Betty J. Carmack (http://bettyjcarmack.com/). The program covered subjects including the human-animal bond, understanding grief, communication skills, challenging client interactions, complicated grief, and children and pet loss. However, of particular interest to me was the section on pet loss and the elderly.
Generally speaking I consider myself an empathetic person, but what I realized from Dr. Carmack’s program is that there are aspects specific to an elderly pet parent’s grief that I had never even considered, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Those of us who are not yet elderly can’t naturally empathize with the uniqueness of their situation, so we must listen to experts like Dr. Carmack.
The following notes are largely those of Dr. Carmack.
Perhaps more so than the rest of us, elderly pet parents have a mutually nurturing relationship with their pets. Their pet provides them with a sense of purpose, and the pet fulfills the senior’s need to be needed.
Pets encourage mobility, which is extra important for a person who’s ability to move around is constantly in decline. The need to be mobile and strong enough to adequately care for their pet — feed and exercise them and get them veterinary care when needed — can be crucial to the senior pet parent’s physical health.
Pets also provide structure and predictability in an elderly pet parent’s daily activities and lifestyle.
Significant factors affecting grief in the elderly that are mourning the loss of a pet:
• They may live alone or some distance away from human family members or friends. The loss of their pet may mean the loss of their only (or key) companion.
• The pet may be a link to a beloved spouse, partner, friend, child, parents or siblings that have passed away. The death of their pet may trigger past grief.
• The pet’s death may remind them of their own mortality as their age progresses.
• The pet’s death may trigger sadness in the realization that it may be unfair or unwise to adopt a new pet that may outlive them.
• They may grieve profoundly if they were unable to keep or adequately care for their pet due to physical or financial limitations or being forced into living arrangements that would not allow the pet to be with them.
• They may become withdrawn and depressed or may become angry and bitter due to loss of control over circumstances and outcomes.
• They may seem to be able to adjust well outwardly due to prior life experiences, yet feel unable to reach out for support to speak of loss. They may experience “disenfranchised grief” where they feel that the loss of their pet cannot be publically mourned with friends or family.
Ways to help elderly pet parents cope with pet loss:
1) LISTEN. They may want to share fond memories. They may repeat themselves “over and over.” Let them. Be patient.
2) Check back with them several weeks after a pet’s death. Ask open ended questions like, “How are you feeling?” and “Tell me about your day.”
3) Assist them in aftercare arrangements and memorialization. Plant a tree or garden in memory of the pet. A paw print, fur clipping, memorial card or framed photo may be of comfort, yet small enough to be kept close at hand in small living quarters. Hand written notes and condolence cards are often appreciated. Make a donation to honor the pet’s memory to an organization that would help other animals.
4) And finally…respect their life experience. We are all human. We all grieve the loss of a pet. However, the elderly grieve within a physical and emotional context that most of us can’t imagine.
Why not “pay it forward?” One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll have lived a long and full life and will be in their position. I, for one, certainly hope that someone will care enough to reach out, listen , and do their best to empathize with me.