Sunday, December 29, 2013

Travel, Dementia, and Dogs

Toto the Wonder Dog warms Dad's lap.
Photo by Pam Stephan
When we travel with Dad, the dogs always travel with us. That means making reservations at dog-friendly hotels. La Quinta gets a lot of our business. We make a travel plan and the night before, we start packing. Bags are filled with clothes, pills, and electronics for the people. We bring snacks and sometimes drinks, in case we get stuck in traffic a while and need a distraction. Because Dad has memory loss, he has no sense of how long we've been sitting still on the interstate, and frustration can come on quickly. Food is a great distraction, when you can't play dominos. Oh yes, and we always bring a bag of dominos, score sheets and all.

A big plastic box is loaded with dog food, treats, toys, bowls, and first aid supplies. Dog blankets are stowed in the car and each pet wears her harness and leash, while I stuff my pockets with doggie poop bags. The dogs travel well and they've been along on our journeys ever since Dad has lived with us. There are just two dogs and they are lap-sized. Dad can't remember their names, so he calls his pet "DogDog" even though we call her Toto. She is a toy fox terrier with a calm temperament and a strong loyalty to Dad. Toto is about 14 years old and going strong. Her favorite sport is Ball TossMy dog is named Pinky but she often gets called "YipDog" or "PiggyDog" or "Slim." She is a mix of toy fox terrier and chihuahua, a dog who was rescued from a puppy mill. Her favorite sport is Mealtime. Okay, well, she is overweight. 

My sister gave Toto to Dad 7 years ago, about a year after Mom died. Dad had been lonely, in his house on his own, but Toto changed that for the better. He had been living with dementia for a while, Mom had been his caregiver. My father has always had pets, usually dogs. But he has also had cats, a mockingbird with a broken wing, and a pair of baby possums. Dogs in the house were a constant part of our life and Toto was a natural fit.

Dogs don't care if a person has dementia. They aren't judgmental about that. Dogs can live "in the moment" very well. While they like routines, these dogs have been very tolerant of changes. Every morning, Dad gets dressed and takes Toto out to the yard for her morning break. They come in and watch TV news together. After breakfast, she hopes he'll give her a scrap of sausage, and she usually gets it. We take walks in the park, visit PetSmart, and do doggie baths together. Dad gets a sense of accomplishment and joy from caring for the dogs. Sometimes he calls them "the kids!" 

Seven years ago, when Dad and Toto moved in with us, the dog helped him navigate this house. She helped him learn the paths from his room to the door, to the kitchen, and to the garage. Petting her has lowered Dad's blood pressure. Feeding her is important to him. Keeping her healthy with regular vet visits and proper diet are things he's willing to help with. Toto might as well be a dementia therapy dog. She has become an important part of Dad's life as well as part of our family.

Now if we could only teach her how to shuffle dominoes ...

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