Sometimes when we go to the park, Bruce – my canine research assistant – and I meet with another more-than-human pair, who join us for a game of fetch. The other pair, both human and dog, are quite old and slow, and pace to each other’s rhythm in a way that only partners who have lived together for a long time know how. I suspect the dog, a stunning-looking Border Collie, suffers from some sort of cognitive decline (known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction – CCD – or simply canine dementia.) His human encourages him to play and prompts him to the ball, but the dog seems to have forgotten altogether. Sometimes, his owner feels the need to excuse him: “He knows how to play, he loves playing with the ball!” This very frail gentleman seems to continue this going-to-the-park thing for his dog’s sake, but also probably for their bond, for the history of their life lived together. For many older people, an older pet is also the last one. It is not uncommon for dog owners to grant their old companions a last wish: going to their favourite place, giving them their favourite treats, or meeting their best doggie pal. It’s a bittersweet thing to witness: the tenderness of this owner, the intimacy and the matching appearance of this older pair.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this couple in the last weeks, and if they still go to the park. After the announcement of an initial ‘take no-action plan’ (sic!), the UK decided to impose lockdown restrictions and regulations given the spread of COVID-19 infections. Two weeks after World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, people were advised by the UK government to take only one walk a day for exercise or walking the dog, although the Scottish government added an allowance to take the dog out more than once a day if required. Officials strongly recommend to stay as local as possible and avoid interaction with others. That goes for dogs as well, and owners were advised to keep their dogs on a lead, despite issuing regular statements reassuring that there is no evidence pets can carry or transmit this ‘human’ virus. Funnily enough, people’s social distancing and isolation has ended up extending to our non-human companions as well. An unexpected way of bio-socio-politically anthropomorphising other species with which we share and bond our lives.
In my own PhD research, I try to understand how people living with dementia in Scottish care facilities and therapy-animals bond through Animal-Assisted Therapy activities. One of the things I’m interested in is how human health and wellbeing become entangled with that of their non-human companions. There’s a wealth of literature documenting the benefits of pet ownership, animal interactions, or animal-assisted therapy for older people in general, and for those experiencing cognitive decline in particular. Many of these studies (most of them clinical trials) talk about the role of animals in keeping humans fit through regular walks, alleviating loneliness and thus its potential risk for depression and further cognitive decline, or by acting as ‘social lubricants’ (i.e., facilitating social interactions). Much less is mentioned about the benefits (or, for that matter, the negative impacts) of human ownership or animal-assisted therapeutic activity on pets.
When I first met Jean three months ago, she’d already been living at River View care home for a few years. She lives with vascular dementia, although she doesn’t seem very keen on this diagnosis. “You see, I’m old,” she tells me. “I don’t remember things.” Her two daughters live in America, and can only visit once a year. When I introduced myself, she didn’t seem to understand what I was telling her about my research. But when I mentioned dogs, she instantly stepped into the conversation: “Oh, aye, I love dogs! I had two dogs, Stevie and Dingo”. Then she called “Dingoooo!” – a phantom of her past. “What happened to Stevie and Dingo?” I asked. “They had to be put to sleep. You see, you can’t move here with your dogs.” Her eyes filled with tears, and her sweet smile turned into a painful grimace. My heart aches for Jean, for Stevie, for Dingo. Tragically, her story is not singular, and it matches many others’ who’ve had to give up their pets when moving to a care home. Rusty, the gentle giant Husky therapet who visits people at River View with his human Jim, often fills this imposed loss. He never minds when Jean calls him Dingo, or when someone else squeezes his head and kisses his long, wet nose. “For my dog,” Peter, one of the therapet volunteers, told me, “a person with dementia is just another nice human. He doesn’t care if people don’t remember him.” And this is exactly what many residents at River View need, yet often don’t get from their fellow humans: to feel human, to be acknowledged as a person, to not be reduced to lost memory. Quite a few residents though, like Jasmine, remember Rusty by name, even if they can’t remember the names of their children. The assumption that short-term memory disappears when dementia progresses comes apart when Rusty steps in with his big paws. But this attachment doesn’t only go one way. Luna, another therapet, used to squeak with pleasure every time her owner Laura took out the green fluorescent therapet leash to put on for their care home visit. Long after they ended their therapet visits due to personal reasons, Luna continued to pull Laura towards the care home every time they passed by.
But now Rusty can’t visit his human friends at River View anymore. On the 12thof March, the very next day after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, most care homes across the UK closed down to all external visitors, human and non-human. Sadly, WHO declarations of global pandemic are not unfamiliar to people living with dementia. In 2015, a WHO report called dementia itself ‘a global epidemic’, given its alarming projected increasing numbers. And although not contagious, people with dementia have lived in social isolation long before COVID-19. However, this new pandemic is of a different kind. While dementia kills ‘in silence’, most of the time with individuals and families left to cope on their own, COVID-19 seems to kill with the clamour of a shutdown global economy and strangled health systems, mobilising everyone to action.
When I found out about the care homes being locked down though, I felt somehow relieved. If the virus makes its way into a care home, this will have catastrophic consequences. Yet I can’t stop thinking about this unexpected and even greater social isolation. Even before COVID-19, loneliness was often called a public health epidemic for older people, in particular for those living with dementia in care facilities. And I keep thinking what effects yet another imposed loss of social contact for both humans and non-humans will have. For some, like Jean, Rusty’s visits are the only visits she gets. For others like Jasmine, Rusty keeps her anchored in an otherwise dissolving present. For therapets, the visits are an enjoyable routine to look forward to that make the human-animal relationship stronger and the therapy more effective. As with war, the total number of victims and the damage can only be calculated when it’s all over. After this pandemic is gone, it will probably take years to work out all of the direct, and more insidious ways, this virus has killed.
Bruce and I haven’t been to the park where we meet the old gentleman and his dog for quite a while. It’s not local enough. But I’m pretty sure the gentleman and his dog still go there, slowly walking, pacing their rhythm to each other. For them, their walks may be the last thing they do together. For the vast majority of the rest of us, it may be just our once-a-day walk.
Except for Bruce, all names have been anonymised. My research is supported by Parkes Foundation through the Small Grant Fund.
Cristina Douglas is a medical anthropologist working towards her PhD at the University of Aberdeen. Her PhD research project explores the relationships between people living with dementia in Scottish care facilities and therapy-animals (dogs and owls). Currently she is working with Dr Andrew Whitehouse as co-editor of a collective volume about the entanglements between ageing and more-than-human companionship (to be published at Rutgers University Press).
“The Age of COVID-19” is a series being cross-posted at Somatosphere and the Association for Anthropology, Gerontology and the Life Course (AAGE) blog and is edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor and Narelle Warren.
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- How is the pandemic affecting people with dementia? A case study
- In and outside the nursing home: On the (im)possibilities of meaningful contact while being held apart