Hangin’ at the hospice

Small dog on hospital bed being petted by patient

Twice a month, my PAL Jelly and I go to visit the seniors at a retirement home. Adjoining the home is a hospice, and often we stop in there along the way. Because Jelly is vertically challenged, it is hard for her to visit with people who are bedridden, but she does her best, seeking out chairs and couches so she can raise herself up within reach.

I admit that entering a hospice isn’t easy. I never know who I’ll meet and what condition they’ll be in. Others must feel the same because somedays there are very few visitors, if any. Some of the patients are so close to dying that they are not up to company.

The past few visits, we’ve been watching a dog-adoring hospice patient become increasingly frail. From the pictures hanging on the wall, I can see he was once a strong and vibrant man. On the wall, there are several pictures of him with his dog. Over time, he is having more and more difficulty moving his body and speaking clearly. Imagine the frustration of not being able to communicate easily. Despite his challenges, he greets the PALS dogs with a broad smile, even if he needs to be woken from sleep to visit.

Since this patient is missing his dog terribly and is unable to reach down to pet our dogs, we lift our dogs up onto the bed with him. When Jelly’s turn on the bed came yesterday, she was more than glad to oblige. She snuggled up to the patient and kissed his face repeatedly. He laboured with his little remaining muscle strength to raise his hand to pet her. I was moved watching his effort to be with the dogs.

While we were visiting, two granddaughters walked in to see him. One of the girls immediately started crying when she saw the dogs and bent down to pet them. She told us she had had a bad day and she was so glad we were there. She didn’t elaborate, but I was glad seeing the pups comforted her.

I tried to imagine how hard it would have been for these young girls to enter the hospice not knowing what condition their grandfather would be in that day. From one visit to the next, like us, they have been watching him die. What would they find to talk about? Would they even be able to decipher what he was saying? Could they find some way to communicate? Hopefully the brief PALS appearance facilitated their visit, which I’m sure wasn’t easy.

This experience reminded me that we bring our dogs to the hospice not only to see the patients. The staff caring for these patients day in and day out–the nurses, the aides, the cleaning staff–anticipate our arrival. The family and friends who arrive when we’re there appreciate the wagging tails as well. Some even schedule their visits when the PALS dogs will be there. I’m happy knowing that the dogs make the day a little bit easier for many of these people. They deserve at least that.

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Respecting privacy: a case example

Have you heard of Elements Calgary (formerly Calgary Association of Self-Help)? Elements provides support to people with severe and chronic mental illnesses, including people who are under long-term psychiatric care. They may have schizophrenia, severe depression, bipolar disorder, or some other debilitating mental illness. These people are often poor or have unstable housing, and sustaining employment, whether temporarily or permanently, is often beyond reach.

Elements provides a warm, supportive environment where these people can socialize with others and access services. They have access to mental health counselling, life skills and vocational training, and opportunities for social interaction.

I have never been disabled by my supermarket-variety anxiety the way these people have been by their malfunctioning brain chemistry. I admire them deeply for plugging along despite their mental-health challenges, and I’m relieved that agencies like Elements are available to them.

PALS visits Elements once a month. Jelly and I have signed up for the Elements visits for several months now. We have met many of the regulars at Elements. These people are often unable to care for a dog themselves, so they’re always grateful for a visit with a PALS dog.

Jelly and I went there yesterday for the first visit since June and were greeted by many familiar faces. One fellow was especially pleased to see PALS. Mr. Success Story shared that he was doing so well he was readying himself to return to the workforce. At one point, his illness interfered with his capacity to work, but he had made great strides in recent months with Elements’ support.

Mr. Success Story wanted us to know how much Elements, and the PALS visits, had helped him through his darkest period. I imagine that he is still alive because, when he was at his lowest, he found an accepting place where he could go. He realizes that physicians and mental health workers may refer clients to Elements without fully appreciating the good the agency does. He plans to find a way to get the word out through social media.

As you can imagine, there are strict privacy rules in an agency such as Elements. We certainly cannot share people’s names or identifying information, and I’ve been so vague that you could walk by Mr. Success Story on the street without realizing I was speaking of him. I wanted to share his story nonetheless because I was moved by it.

The same privacy rules do not apply to us: PALS members are shameless about having our pictures taken. Not knowing this, and wanting to respect our privacy, Mr. Success Story kindly asked the PALS volunteers (human and dog) whether he could take photographs during the visit. I may not like looking in mirrors, especially the side view, but I will pose for a PALS picture with Jelly without hesitation. If Mr. Success Story felt that those pictures might help him to garner publicity for Elements, we’d be in there like a dirty paw. “Snap away!” I said.

Best of luck, Mr. Success Story. You deserve all the credit for how far you’ve come. I’m glad Elements was there to help you along in your time of need.

So much for fresh-picked apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah

Very run down country home, holes in roof and walls, abandoned

I have an annual ritual before the Jewish New Year. I go to the market the weekend before the holiday and buy the best fresh-picked apples I can find for dipping into honey. This year my favourites, the crispy tart Macs, are in season. I had a busy weekend with few windows of opportunity but I thought Sunday afternoon was clear.

It wasn’t. Remember last year when I thought I’d found the house of my dreams but we who hesitated were lost? Since then, we’ve continued to keep our eyes open to homes in our neighbourhood. We have a very specific set of criteria and a price range, and when a house comes up, we’re checking it out. We are frequent attendees at open houses.

So far, we haven’t had much success. Each home we’ve viewed has been wanting: a bedroom short, yard deficient, run down, overpriced. J. loved one recent listing beyond our price range so much that she rushed out to buy a lottery ticket. She said, as she always does during her semi-annual lottery-ticket purchase, “We’re good people. We deserve to win the lottery, don’t we?” She wasn’t even hoping for the jackpot, just a few hundred thousand dollars to cover us. Guess how that panned out?

Sunday afternoon, smack in the middle of my scheduled apple picking, a home that looked absolutely perfect was open for viewing. The listing said it was the right size at the right price on the right street. Pictures suggested it had a nice yard and a spiffy kitchen and three decent-sized bedrooms. The separate entrance with stairs to the basement would even give it office potential.

(Did I happen to mention I have not one but two clients scheduled this week? Maybe if I worked a little more, J. could stop buying lottery tickets.)

Reluctantly, I set my annual apple buying ritual aside. Off we traipsed to check out the house, showing up at 2 p.m. alongside the realtor. The crowds were eager to enter as he changed his “Coming soon!” sign to “For Sale”. But J. and I weren’t waylaid by his tardiness: we went straight to the backyard first.

Somehow the gorgeous photos didn’t capture the many doggy deposits and the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. While we were watching our step, we met the friendly furry depositor, who’d been left at home to greet potential buyers. Had we only known it was a dog-friendly home, we’d have brought Jelly, who would have loved a tour of the home, especially if it involved racing around after the four-legged resident.

I regret to inform you that those gorgeous interior pictures must also have been Photoshopped. The inside of the home was in shambles. Counters were filthy, appliances were dented, blankets were strewn around couches, toothpaste dotted the washroom floor. I could go on, but I’ll spare you. Because I am infection prone, we didn’t linger.

Our look-and-dash left me time to go marketing, but my hopes were so profoundly dashed that I needed the time to mourn. All is not lost, however. Maybe the next house will be perfect, even without Photoshop or a lottery win. They say you gotta kiss a lot of frogs….

You’ll stand on guard for me?

No squirrels allowed sign

I’ve been remiss. I’ve been too busy reading the newspaper, and obsessing, to post. Since writing about Mr. Random Acts of Kindness, I’ve woken up to daily free newspapers on the front landing. I know Mr. RAK is leaving them because he’s kind, and hopefully he now knows he is appreciated. But, as I told you, saying thank you was not enough. Baking was in order.

This was no easy feat. First I had to obsess about what to bake him. I decided on banana chocolate chip muffins, which I thought would be a nice snack for his early-morning route. I meticulously followed the recipe. Then I carefully packaged the wares up in a new container with a see-through cover.

Then the obsessing began. Where to leave the stash? Imagine me making several trips to the neighbours’ house to sort this out. First I worried he wouldn’t be able to read my writing in the dark, and thus would not realize this package was for him. The porch light seemed excessive so I brought over a tiny flashlight to illuminate the gift.

I was happy with this arrangement when J. reminded me of the squirrel family that lives under our neighbours’ front stairs. In case you didn’t know, squirrels are the enemy. They bury peanuts in our yard which Jelly can’t help but dig up. They race carelessly through our spruce trees, releasing showers of pine cones on our driveway along the way. And they’ve been selfishly pillaging our garden all summer. A few days ago, a squirrel knocked our one and only thriving eggplant off the plant and took several chomps before we intervened. Do you need more proof that squirrels are not to be trusted?

J.’s reminder overwhelmed me with anxiety. A quick internet search determined that squirrels can eat through absolutely anything. I imagined that my tasty muffins would never survive the night.

By this point, I was exhausted and I wasn’t thinking straight. I couldn’t figure out how to leave the muffins out without disaster striking. The stoop was too unsafe. I moved the muffin container to our neighbours’ mailbox, which I believed would be squirrel proof, and it was. In fact, the mailbox was so safe that upon awakening, I saw that the muffins were still exactly where I’d left them. Mr. RAK delivered the paper to the neighbour’s porch and didn’t even notice his gift.

At that moment, I realized I should have taken J. up on her offer the previous night. In the midst of my late-night crisis, she had asked me whether I’d like her to stand sentry overnight to ensure that the squirrels didn’t interfere with the gift. Why did I say no?

Tonight I plan to leave the muffins prominently on our landing. I’ll turn on our motion-sensor porch light and post a “No Squirrels Allowed” sign. Then I will pray that Mr. RAK finds his package intact, assuming he drops by yet again. Maybe I should enlist Jelly as a watchdog. Who am I kidding? That dog would eat those muffins, container and all, faster than any squirrel.

Retriever balancing muffin on his snout

Introducing the intermittent reinforcement schedule

Basset with tongue in bowl

Despite what I may have led you to believe, Jelly has many advanced dog skills. She can do all sorts of magnificent tricks, like shaking a paw while laying down, sitting, or standing. She sits and stays while we fill her bowl with high-priced kibble, and refrains from eating her meal until we release her, which happens as soon as we hit our tolerance threshold for drool on the kitchen floor.

Now that she is maturing, I am enjoying my trips with Jelly to the off-leash park more. Jelly stays fairly close by. If she lags behind, it’s only to sniff a particularly fragrant blade of grass. Rarely do I have to call her to me anymore; she usually remains within a reasonable distance.

Except when she doesn’t. I attribute these lapses to my never training her to come when I call her. You’d think I’d have mastered this command, which requires an understanding of basic reinforcement theory. You learned all about reinforcement theory in Intro Psych, right? If so, you likely received a better grade than my mediocre B, thereby better preparing yourself for elementary dog training.

I know how I should have trained Jelly to come. First, I was to reward her every time she came, or as we say in psychology speak, to reinforce her on a continuous-reinforcement schedule. This approach is best when a dog is learning a new behaviour. The reward could involve my greeting Jelly excitedly or, more often (bad Annie), my giving her a treat.

Once Jelly came every time I called–did she ever?–I should have stopped giving her a treat each time (in other words, I should have shifted to intermittent reinforcement). This means I should have rewarded her occasionally, on what’s known as a variable-ratio schedule. The best way to maintain a learned behaviour is not to know when to expect the next reward. I want Jelly to comes each time thinking she might score a treat, which she may or may not.

Diligent dog trainers stop rewarding with treats altogether once the behaviour is mastered. These trainers naively believe that their dogs will come simply in order to please them. Forget that. Jelly comes only if there’s something in it for her, and that something must be edible.

But that’s only part of the problem. Recently I’ve realized that, rather than my training her, Jelly has been training me. Every so often I turn around, only to find my sweet dog MIA. When I look her way, I barely see her head above that long fragrant grass. Eventually she looks my way. She knows she should come but is waiting for me to call her first. That’s because she’s learned that if she runs to me out of the goodness of her heart, I’ll greet her excitedly but won’t proffer a treat. She knows I give her a treat only if she comes when I call her, so she’s learned to wait until I beckon, and then she comes a-running.

Now you probably understand why I received that B in Intro Psych. Not only have I failed at basic reinforcement theory, my dog understands the theory better than I do. She has me wrapped around her huge Basset paw.

The luck of the draw

Toddler sitting on sidewalk with little puppy kissing his face

I love my PALS visits with Jelly. I get to go to new places and meet new people and watch them adore my dog. Of course I love to tell them funny stories about her, but I don’t go on and on about her because it’s not all about us, especially during these visits. I have to find other topics of conversation instead.

I’ve long accepted that I’m terrible at small talk. Getting-to-know-you conversations are hard for me in general. I was particularly stumped at a PALS outing last week.

We had volunteered to visit a special nursing home. The residents there are hard-to-place older folks who would not otherwise be accepted into seniors’ homes. Many are alcoholic and/or mentally ill, and many once lived on the street. The alcoholic residents are given controlled amounts of alcohol at regular intervals. Without access to alcohol, these people would likely continue to live in poverty on the streets. The residence’s goals are to reduce these people’s run ins with the police and their need for emergency health care.

I’ve been in many seniors’ homes with Jelly and this one was more run down than others I’ve seen. (Imagine the challenges gathering funding for a place like this.) So were the people there, many of whom were socializing in the common area when we arrived. Still, this special residence gives them a roof over their heads and three meals a day, access to laundry facilities, and on-site medical care. There are significant daily supports in place, so they don’t need to be trying to survive on the streets anymore.

I didn’t know what brought these folks to this residence and my asking them would have been inappropriate. Of course I wondered about their pasts, though. Sometimes their mental-health issues were apparent, but others simply appeared poor and downtrodden. I hope my discomfort wasn’t obvious, but I felt even more awkward than usual finding common ground for conversation.

I often fall back on one strategy when I have no idea what to say. On all our PALS outings, people can choose to visit with the dogs or not, so those that do attend are clearly dog lovers (or cat lovers who are willing to accept second best). Their interest in animals gives me an easy inroad: I ask them about their experiences with dogs. That breaks the ice, probably for me more than for them. People love to talk about their dogs–I can relate to that–even if they may be sad recalling better times in their lives.

On this visit, our dog conversations reminded me that our lives may not have been all that different at one point. These people weren’t born mentally ill, although they likely were harbouring bad genes that would reveal themselves later. They likely lived with family when they were younger, just like I did. But at some point, poverty or mental illness or addiction derailed their lives. I expect they’ve had bad luck, while somehow I did not. Life is truly unfair.

I’m glad this special residence can provide these folks a home. Everyone deserves at least that, no matter what.

With age comes wisdom, sometimes

Basset hound running behind greyhoundI am slowly coming to accept that I am not the young buckette (is that doe?) I once was. I had a crash course in recognizing my limitations when I got sick. Now I know that I won’t run any more marathons, climb any more mountains, or participate in any more aerobics classes that will cause me to break a sweat.

But every so often I forget. Occasionally I try to run a little bit and my body quickly reminds me to stop. I seem to be the last person leaving every yoga class I attend–I roll my mat and collect my things at a snail’s pace. Everything takes longer than it used to when I was youthful. I moved with vigour once, but now I’m slow as molasses. In fact, recently I gave up rushing altogether, and I must say I don’t miss it.

I’m not the only one who is aging. Jelly turned 7 last month, which means she is now  a doggy senior. Although she looked like a puppy until a year or two ago–even dogs want to believe they look younger than they are–even her little red eyelashes are now turning grey. I’ve noticed she’s never been asked for identification for a senior’s discount.

There are other signs of Jelly’s advancing age: she is more likely to amble than gambol when we visit the park. Still, we go there so she can venture as far as she wants that day and visiting with her four-legged friends. I do miss the days when she’d chase her peers over hill and dale, barking frantically as she brought up the rear, “Wait for me! Wait for me!”

Except for last Friday morning, when Jelly temporarily forgot that she too is no young buckette anymore. She met up with Kona, a lovely tall greyhound cross, who seemed intent on a running mate. Kona egged Jelly on persistently, resulting in an all-out no-holds-barred chase around the park. Kona was born to run. She easily outpaced Jelly, who persevered nonetheless, cutting the odd corner when she needed to. Jelly fought the good fight, until she tanked, whereupon she slowly limped back to the car.

I knew exactly how Jelly would feel following that romp. I knew she would regret running herself ragged, but there was no way I could convince her to pass on the opportunity. We all need to learn from experience. Has anyone ever heeded the wisdom of elders?

I was not surprised that Jelly spent most of the weekend recuperating. Will her stiffness stop her from trying to outrace the next greyhound that wants to be chased? Probably not. She’s a dog, and she does not always learn from experience. Come to think of it, neither do I.

But all is not lost. Despite Jelly’s recent stiffness and fatigue, every time the wind blows, she rises from lounging and leaps off the deck, positioning herself under the apple tree in case a delicious snack happens to fall. Each time, I drag myself agedly out of my chair, thereby granting Jelly ample time to wolf down her spoils. Jelly’s body may be old, but, at least when it comes to food, her mind is forever young.

One potato, two potato, three potato, more?

This morning at the park, Jelly saw 6 dogs and 10 balls. You do the math. (Don’t forget to solve for both x and y.) How I long for a dog that ambles through the open meadow, sniffing the peed-on fragrant wildflowers. Is that too much to ask?

I’m sure you’re dying to know, after all this time, “How does your garden grow, Annie?” I have learned so much since we started this new venture, but I have so much more to learn. Don’t ask me for gardening tips because I don’t have any. Follow the instructions on the seed packet, water regularly, and enjoy the spoils.

Rule-bound gal that I am, I have followed the seed-packet instructions to the letter (with one exception noted below), and I have something to show for my diligent efforts. I spaced the seeds the required distance, planted them at the required depth, watered them regularly (more often I’ve watched J. water them), and we are now starting to reap the vegetables of our labour.

Very little beans growing on bean plantWe have harvested the odd tomato from our thriving plants, one little red strawberry from our patch, and several salads’ worth of lettuce and kale. If all of our little green tomatoes ripen, we will have enough to eat bruschetta and tomato soup and tabbouli for months. Our beautiful little flowers on our bean plants have become itty bitty beans, which will hopefully continue to grow so we can eat them someday.

Thankfully, Jelly continues to help thin our greens. No more supermarket kale for her; the garden variety is so much tastier. The dog is adept at thinning, but on this front I have failed. Thinning would involve destroying a plant I have lovingly nurtured. Why would I kill the runt of the litter? Don’t all seeds deserve a full life?

You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that our larger-than-life zucchini plants are encroaching not only on one another but on all the now-sun-deprived plants around them. As I write, mounds of mini zucchini are fighting for their lives. It will be survival of the fittest, plant edition, in our zucchini patch.

Eggplant plant with one purple flower

Baba ganoush in its infancy

Today we jumped an especially exciting garden hurdle. After weeks of watching our eggplant plants take root, we were blessed with our very first eggplant blossom. Eggplants are not grown in this climate because our growing season is short, so I’m trying to temper my excitement. We are crossing our fingers, between waterings, for at least one batch of baba ganoush before the first frost.

Potato plant in garden

Can you guess how many potatoes are growing?

As you can probably tell, I still have a lot to learn. For example, J. recently taught me that one huge potato plant may bear many potato babies rather than one ginormous one. Potato plants are notorious for multiple births, I now understand. Here’s hoping we’ll grow at least enough taters for a side of tots.

Next year’s garden can only improve over this year’s, right? I won’t plant as many radishes, I will remember to plant my greens out of Jelly’s reach, and I will thin my zucchini. What are we possibly going to do with all those zucchini? Suggestions are appreciated. Better yet, steal some. We’ll never notice.

 

The problem with dogs with balls

Terrier with tennis ball in its mouthJelly and I have been heading to the off-leash dog park most mornings. Whenever we go, I am struck by the number of people who are fixated by a tennis ball. Their dogs are excited to be at the park not to see their compatriots but to chase that ball relentlessly, drop it at their owner’s foot, only to chase it again. These dogs live to fetch.

Bassets and fetching? Not so much. If I threw a rabbit, they’d run after it. Bunny chasing is in their blood. Ball chasing? Forget it. Jelly has learned to ignore dogs with balls because she knows they will not be interested in playing with her.

I’m getting off track. It’s dogs with the other kind of balls, the kind attached to their bodies, that pose the problem. Jelly can spot those dogs a mile off. She doesn’t run much at the park anymore, except when she sniffs out an unneutered male. Then she’s emits a whimpering cry unlike no other and chases relentlessly after that dog until I manage to snag her, leash her, and take her away.

I no longer ask the owners, “Does your dog have balls?” I can tell by Jelly’s squeals and rapt attention that the dog does indeed, whether or not his wares are on display.

I often tell the owner that Jelly is very fond of intact males, which begs their question, “Is Jelly spayed?” What do you think? We adopted Jelly from doggie jail. Dogs don’t get released from jail until their reproductive parts are removed, thereby ensuring they do not add to the unwanted-dog population. “Yes, Jelly is fixed,” I respond, “although I’m not whether Dr. Animal finished the job.”

I say this because recently I learned that when girl dogs are spayed, only part of their parts are removed, ensuring that they cannot reproduce. But other parts remain, leading dogs like Jelly to be tormented by their desires for the rest of their lives. No wonder girl dogs, spayed or not, just want to have fun.

When these incidents occur, I bite my tongue rather than telling those ballsy owners, “Why must you bring your unneutered dog to an off-leash park?” (Jelly is not the only dog tormented by dogs with balls. Balls breed fights, and puppies, although any owner who brings an intact female to the park deserves a very large litter of puppies 58 to 68 days later.)

After an incident like this, we head to the balls-free zone of the park, where Jelly can frolic in peace. Those other balls may fly overhead, begging to be fetched, but Jelly ignores them.

During this week’s PALS visit at the retirement residence, Jelly and I crossed paths with a visitor who had brought along her dog with balls. No, I couldn’t see them, and they weren’t neon yellow, but Jelly quickly became entranced. Everyone nearby was tickled by Jelly’s relentless interest in this dog. I immediately pulled Jelly away from this dog before her squealing escalated to howling in the echoey hallway.

Jelly may be a doggie senior, but some days she acts more like a teenager with a crush. They say hormones can rage at any age. If you don’t believe me, join us at the park one day.

 

Volunteering by proxy

Calgary Stampede midway crowded with people

That’s me in the top right corner.

I must apologize for not writing yesterday, especially since I know how you hang on my every word. I spent the day carousing at the Stampede grounds. Just kidding. I’d rather sleep than watch adults young and old embarrassing themselves in public.

Stampede is a time for reckless alcohol overconsumption. With that comes an increase in philandering, and of course, STIs and unwanted pregnancies, despite the local campaign to “put a condom on your cowboy.” Not surprisingly, divorces spike following the week-long party. Stampeding sounds too risky to me, so I hunker down at home instead.

J., on the other hand, plans two visits to the grounds with our good friend, Triple D. They will be there from supper time until midnight both nights, but they won’t have time for drinking or philandering; they’ll be selling lottery tickets for fancy cars. They are volunteering for this task in support of PALS. J. noticed that PALS was seeking people for this fundraising event, and not only did she volunteer for two long shifts, she signed up Triple D, who is known for always making time for a good deed.

When I became a PAL, I learned that, in addition to our regularly scheduled visits, I’d be expected to support the organization in other ways. This included, for example, interviewing new recruits, helping out on the multi-station dog-assessment day, or attending fundraising events with or without my little pal in tow.

Most of these activities involve longer hours than I have the stamina for, so I pass. I do my part by volunteering for one-time visits–last week’s parade is a recent example, although that day felt more like a gift than an obligation–on top of our regularly scheduled visits with the old folks.

The same is true for Calgary Blood Services. I can’t donate blood, so I feed soup and cookies to those who can, and try to encourage healthy others to donate in my stead. I’m grateful to J. for persisting in giving despite her fainting after her second blood donation, and to my dear friend known affectionately as Spongebob (for reasons that will remain a mystery to you) who donated for the first time last month with no ill effects. Anticipating the milkshake he’d be buying on his way home probably helped him through the itty bitty pin prick.

Maybe I shouldn’t say that I pass on the volunteer duties I can’t fulfill since the truth is that I pass them on to gracious and willing others wherever I can. I wish I could volunteer myself, but I know my limits. A 6-hour sales shift ending at midnight–assuming I did not sleep through the chaos like Jelly did at that parade–would knock me out for days. I also know that the screening interviewers at Canadian Blood Services would laugh at me if I tried to donate blood despite my leukemia. I know what my limits are, and that there are some things I can’t do, however much I wish I could.

Kudos to those folks, J. et al., who donate their time or their gift of life (blood, that is) in my stead. Their generosity makes my heart sing, and I’m not the heart-singing type.