When we realized that Mom would have to move out of the assisted living home after being there for only two weeks, and into a nursing home for the first time, our greatest concern was the fact that Mom would not be able to take her cat, Caldonia. Bettina and I had just gotten Mom her fourth calico cat from the local Humane Society, and she was quite a beauty. We couldn’t image how Mom would adjust without having her beloved Caldonia with her. Mom had the first Caldonia for about eight years. This was when her true love for all Caldonias began. Originally this muted calico was my sister’s cat named Callie, but Mom “adopted” her after she took care of her while Bettina moved across the country. When Bettina went to Mom’s apartment to pick up Callie after her two-week trip, Mom replied with her typical spunk and determination, “I’m not giving her back. I’m keeping her and I’ve changed her name to Caldonia. It’s a much more fitting name for such a sophisticated cat!” How could Bettina argue with that?
Mom cared for and loved Caldonia for eight years until she died in Mom’s arms in the vet’s office. Over the course of a year or more, we ended up getting three more calico cats—all named Caldonia. By this time it was too hard for Mom to remember a new name, even when she tried. The second Caldonia was too feisty and wild to keep, and the third died suddenly of a pre-existing condition after Mom had her for only a few months. We were very happy with the fourth Caldonia and knew she would be a keeper. Mom settled into her new assisted living apartment with her new Caldonia, seemingly doing well. But, when we received word that Mom left the stove burners on for hours at a time, knocked on people’s doors in the middle of the night, and one morning opened her door “buck naked” when a caregiver knocked, we knew she needed more care due to the rapid progression of her Alzheimer’s disease.
I was expressing my concern about giving up Caldonia to a friend, when she suggested we get Mom a stuffed animal that looked like Caldonia. I was skeptical, but thought it was worth a try. When I gave Mom this new Caldonia, she responded matter-of-factly, “She’s artificial.” I agreed, but then enthusiastically commented that she’s beautiful just like Caldonia. Mom smiled and took the new (5th?) Caldonia in her arms, embraced her, and soon loved her as much as the original. Mom nurtured her, played with her and took her everywhere she went. She was protective of Caldonia and made sure everyone treated her well. Mom tucked her in with her in bed and relaxed with her as she slept. When it became difficult to converse with Mom due to the decline of her language, we could always ask about Caldonia and have a conversation that was meaningful for Mom. Caldonia was a huge comfort for Mom, especially as the Alzheimer’s disease continued to progress.
Last summer when I was in Kentucky for Mom’s 88th birthday, a nurse in her second nursing home, one with a secure Alzheimer’s unit, asked where I had gotten Caldonia. She said a man would be moving in soon and would have to leave his gray tabby cat, Jack, with his daughter. She wanted to get a stuffed animal for him because she was very aware of the powerful bond Mom had with Caldonia. As a matter of fact, several months earlier, she had asked us to get a back-up Caldonia for Mom in case Caldonia was ever lost.
That afternoon I drove to my sister’s house, went online, and bought a gray tabby for Otto, the new resident. He named his new cat Jack, just like his original one. My sister and I began to give different stuffed animals to a few of the residents, all with Alzheimer’s disease, to see if they, too, would create a comforting bond with a stuffed animal. They all loved their animal and seemed pleased to have it with them. This sparked the idea for Memorable Pets. We realized this was a small way to make a big difference in the lives of people with mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s. We wanted others to experience the love and comfort of a pet, one they are able to care for. As we researched this topic, we learned that our personal experience with Mom and Caldonia had medical support. Functional MRIs of people with Alzheimer’s show that the emotional centers of the brain stay very active long after the language, memory and cognitive centers decline. This information cemented our idea for Memorable Pets, and from then on, we were busy creating our company as a legacy for Mom and to help others with Alzheimer’s.
This past January, I flew from my home in California to Kentucky for a long weekend to see Mom. The day after I arrived, she was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. She kicked the pneumonia and five days later returned to her home, the nursing home where she received extraordinary loving care from so many wonderful nurses. But Mom had quit eating and drinking, a result of advanced Alzheimer’s, according to the doctors. They said that people with Alzheimer’s at this late stage often do not know what to do when offered food and water. Mom declined over another two weeks, and my three-day visit turned into a journey with my mother lasting three weeks and three days. Mom held Caldonia tight the entire time her body was shutting down. When Mom took her last breath with her three children by her side, I was holding one hand while she cradled Caldonia in her arm. Caldonia, all five of them, comforted my mother over many years right up until the moment she passed away. We buried Caldonia with Mom, thankful for this unexpected blessing in her life, and in ours.
June 20, 2011
Bettina Dickson Rusher and Frances Dickson founded Memorable Pets, LLC in 2010. Memorable Pets is an online e-commerce business where people can buy a Memorable Pet for a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. They have a large selection of dogs and cats, all chosen for their size and realistic look. These pets can easily sit in an adult lap and are very soft to the touch. When a pet is purchased, a portion of the sale will be donated to help fund Alzheimer’s research and support programs. Pets to People is a program for individuals, groups or corporate sponsors who want to help by giving a Memorable Pet to someone unknown to them. This is a tax-deductible donation. Memorable Pets will find a loving owner for all pets donated. Visit www.memorablepets.com for more information.