- Two years shy of my only child being old enough to leave home, we have a new addition to our family: a 14 week-old puppy called Charlie. But my decision to get a dog has divided my friends. While some wonder why I’d tie myself down so close to ‘being free’, others are desperate to do the same thing as soon as their youngest child leaves home. Yet my reasoning was different. Because one reason for getting our puppy was to bridge the gulf between me and my mum.
Let me set the record straight on two things. First, Mum and I have always been close. But two years after the death of my father back in 2010 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and our relationship deteriorated, abruptly, as a result of the paranoia and hostility to close friends and family that is all too often a side effect of this terrible illness.
Second, I have never had a dog. Or, rather, I’ve never had one to call my own. An only child, I grew up with a succession of dogs and cats my parents acquired over the years including, in no particular order: Nelly the neurotic basset hound; Bron, a high maintenance German Shepherd and an adorable Golden Retriever-cross called Sam. But these were my parents’ beloved pets. And I was grateful to be just a happy bystander.
Until living in London, just before my son started school, we got Spike the cat. I’d always loved cats and when a friend’s cat had kittens it seemed a great opportunity for my little boy to learn a little responsibility through caring for something else. Then, after his arrival, Spike’s presence had an added, unforeseen benefit when my son abruptly stopped sucking his thumb after repeated reminders to wash his hands after handling the creature just before eating.
Our family seemed complete and calm reigned until following Mum’s dementia diagnosis as she struggled to live independently, it was the death of her beloved Saluki-Greyhound cross, Molly, that tipped her into crisis and it was clear she needed more care and support than she could get living alone.
The transition from independent living to care home is never easy and the first few months were tough. But as Mum’s illness progressed, the anger and animosity towards me that had shadowed almost 24 months gave way to something else. There came growing confusion about who I was, and the creeping inability to articulate her feelings and needs. The widening gulf between us caused by her Alzheimer’s may have been temporarily halted but it left us as two islands.
Then Labrador-poodle cross Charlie bounded into our lives. Now almost 16 weeks old, Charlie is a whirlwind of energy– both gentle and exuberant - with a penchant for hoarding stolen washing and chewing cardboard. Already, we love her dearly. But over the past three weeks her reaction to visiting my mother’s care home has left me in awe.
Thankfully the team have a pet-friendly policy for residents designed to stimulate which includes an assortment of on-site chickens and even pet rats. Even so, on arrival, Charlie was universally greeted with smiles. One usually silent elderly lady began enthusiastically reciting the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been?’ replacing ‘cat’ with ‘dog’. But it was Mum who gave her the warmest welcome, delighted by the flurry of wagging tails and paws. And as she held the puppy on her lap, Charlie’s giddiness quickly calmed to respectful and contained excitement – almost as if the puppy knew the right thing to do.
I’d read about the role Assistance Dogs can play in dementia care so it was at the back of my mind but I had no idea how transformative the interaction between Mum and Charlie would be. Not only did she smile and laugh for the first time I’d seen in many months, she was able to converse more fully in completed sentences about the puppy and what she looked and felt like. Furthermore, during our visits she has seemed more externally engaged rather than hamstrung by the muddle and confusion inside her head.
Through Charlie, we can talk and laugh again. And I will value that more than I can ever quantify and treasure these moments for as long as they last.
The Day She Can’t Forget ebook by Meg Carter, published by Canelo, is available now for £3.99.
Vote for your favourite PAT dog in our special poll
- For more real life stories, pick up the latest copy of Yours magazine