dementia and learning from dogsDealing with dementia can be challenging, but what can be even more difficult, and frustrating, is the way that society deals with the elderly as they begin to develop dementia. Similarly, it’s difficult for health care providers to care for the elderly exhibiting dementia, especially when society tends to oversimplify the situation.

This frustration, coupled with a love for animals, has led famous gerontologist Dr. Sonya Barnsness to make several astute observations about the elderly through the way she relates, interacts, and lives with her elderly Australian shepherd Blue.

Observing Blue

At thirteen and a half, Dr. Sonya’s dog fits comfortably into the elderly dog category. Blue has many endearing character traits that make up his complex and lovable personality, such as an obsession with tennis balls and love of loud sighs.

Blue also suffers from many common illnesses, a lot of which he shares with humans in the same age-group. These include diabetes, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, severe deafness, and loss of eyesight.

The many health issues surrounding Blue in no way take away from Dr. Sonya’s love for him.  In fact, she finds that her love for Blue has not diminished in spite of his advanced age and deteriorating health, but her love has grown with the shared experiences of a lifetime.

Drawing Comparisons

It is these observations about Blue that have helped Dr. Sonya come up with some concise and deep insights into the way we age, live, and deal with the changes that age brings.

Here are seven observations that Dr. Sonya made:

  1. Things Change, But Remain the Same

Though Blue has changed with age, he’s still himself. The day-to-day changes have helped Blue evolve into a different dog, but they have not taken away from his original self. You can still see the younger Blue in his personality, he is just a little slower, and needs to rest a little more.

This is true for seniors as well. They may change due to age-related factors, but their basic character traits and sense of self remain intact. They still maintain their personality, and still suffer from the same fears and problems that all people face, they just may need help dealing with these problems, when in the past they may have dealt with them on their own.

  1. Seeing the Whole Picture

One of Dr. Sonya’s main insights was that whenever she was talking about Blue, she noticed that she would tend to concentrate on his deficiencies and the declining health of her aging dog. This made her review her thoughts and analyze her behavior.

She concluded that we tend to concentrate on the negative changes that accompany the aging process, but there’s much more to growing old than that. The greater range of experience that comes with age, and the memories and interactions that we share, make aging an important and rewarding part of life.

  1. You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks!

Age has not affected Blue’s curiosity in the very least. He’s not as frisky as he was as a pup, but the sense of wonder and inquisitiveness is still there and going strong.

The same can be said for seniors. Sometimes it’s easy to think that the elderly are slowing down and are content with the lives that they live. While this can be true to a point, seniors still have a sense of wonder and curiosity. It is not uncommon for seniors to take vacations, join a group dedicated to an activity, or pick up a new hobby. Just like Blue, we don’t lose our desire to learn new things as we age.

  1. Never Too Old to Play

While the elderly do like to take on new challenges, just like everyone else, they also still enjoy the same things they did when they were younger. Blue loved fetching his ball. Dr. Sonya noticed that with the deterioration of his sight, Blue started to miss the balls more frequently. At times, he got hit on the head by mistake.

This prompted Dr. Sonya to adapt the way she played with Blue. The one thing that never changed, however, is Blue’s enthusiasm for playing. We tend to forget that fun belongs to all ages, and that you can still help people live their lives the way they want, you just might have to make some adjustments. If a senior loves road trips, but maybe shouldn’t be driving anymore, there are still ways they can take trips. Maybe someone else can drive, or maybe a bus or train ride would be just as exciting as being on the open road.

  1. Behavior Makes Sense

It can be difficult to understand why someone with dementia does something. The main thing is to understand that it is rational. It may not make sense to us, but that is because we are unable to see things from their point of view.

Aggression, for example, can sometimes hide frustration at not being able to speak clearly. This insight came to Dr. Sonya after an RV trip in which Blue started to sit up on the table. In the beginning, she assumed that Blue was tired and dejected. However, after further observation, she noticed that Blue was quite happy on his new perch watching the road go by. Instead of assuming the worst, Dr. Sonya discovered that she had jumped to an erroneous conclusion because she hadn’t “listened” to what Blue was truly saying.

  1. Listen to Your Body

When Blue is tired, he sleeps for hours. It was alarming at first, but when he wakes up filled with energy, it’s a joyous occasion.

With age, our bodies need more time and effort to maintain energy and health. We need to accept this and give the body what it needs. It’s ok to admit that a senior might need a little more rest than they used to. The important thing is to make sure they are getting the right amount of sleep they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, while still enjoying themselves.

  1. We Go One, We Go All

Blue has no problem allowing his human family to carry him along when he’s tired. This interdependency is necessary for a good quality of life.

We sometimes forget that we are more than a collection of individuals. We are a community. We need to be there for each other and depend on each other.

It is important that we understand that no one has to be alone, no matter what age we are, and that sharing experiences with each other, and maybe asking each other for help on occasion, is part of the human experience.

If you have any questions, or would like more information about caring for seniors with disabilities, contact one of our experienced geriatric care managers.