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Grandma’s Best Friend

Life is better when people and dogs can age together

Illustration by Elvis Swift

When my mother finally made the difficult decision to move in with my family in her early 80s, she harbored plenty of misgivings, deciding on the move only when her rheumatoid arthritis and congestive heart failure made it unsafe for her to live alone. Mother brought along her aging West Highland white terrier, Gus, a bone cancer survivor who hopped gamely through the house on his three remaining legs.

Mother left behind a sprawling brick home in town where she had lived for 30 years and took up residence with us in the country in an addition designed to accommodate her needs. Suddenly she was 20 miles from the nearest hub of civilization.

There were plenty of people to take care of her here. Still, she missed her independence and the opportunity to go out to lunch with friends or run errands on a moment’s notice.

Our grandchildren doted on their great-grandma. They drank her Ensure, did somersaults on her couch, fed Gus their cookies and badgered her to read stories. Since her addition was attached to the main house, she had to install a latch on the inside of her door in order to catch uninterrupted naps.

Gus was also unsettled by the move, his lush St. Augustine lawn replaced by spiky Bermuda grass with cows across the fence. He viewed these large animals with deep suspicion and barked ferociously when they approached his empire, a small separate yard he accessed through a doggie door.

Most of Gus’ time was spent curled beside the swivel rocker where Mother read biographies and watched our pair of free-ranging peacocks, who chose the porch rail outside her window to preen themselves and admire their reflections in the glass.

For a couple of years after she came to live with us, Mother was able to drive to town for haircuts, church and social occasions, but as her health slipped, she stayed home more. Her friends, also in their 80s, came to visit less often.

But she had Gus, and scientists have known for decades that older adults who own pets reap vast benefits.

In good weather Mother strolled our long driveway with Gus’ lead slipped over the handle of her walker. She could talk to Gus about anything. Unlike her great- grandchildren, he never interrupted.

Gus seemed to know the help he provided, and he was always there beside her, sporting a whiskery grin and waving tail.

She celebrated five Mother’s Days with us before she died, giving three generations of our family the chance to benefit from her wisdom and to learn to honor and appreciate the life lessons older folks can teach us all.

Gus passed away peacefully a few weeks after she did.