Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Visit With Vi

Roxie and Vi, Christmas 2014
Instead of going straight to work this morning, I went a few miles past the office. You see, I don't usually have a passenger. Today, I had a pug named Roxie riding behind me in a car seat designed to keep a canine occupant at precisely window height. We were on our way to meet someone very special to both of us.

Roxie is an excellent passenger. She rides like a small, four-legged person, looking out the window. She's also a fashion diva - it's a playful surprise  to see what she'll be wearing each time we show up. Today, she wears a pink "I Love My Mommy" sleeveless t-shirt with a matching pink leash and harness. She knows exactly where we are headed. I can see her counting the minutes.

Our host is supposed to meet us in the lobby of Manor House but, when we arrive, she's no where in sight. Most of the residents of this supportive living facility love seeing pets come to visit, and we are stopped several times as we work our way down the hallway. One lady tells me all about her beautiful German Shepherd who died some years ago at the age of 14. Another had a black lab named Sassy who had been rehomed. Pets are not allowed to reside or even spend the night at Manor House, but day visits are permitted.

"There's my Roxie!" Vi is standing in the hallway chatting with another resident. "I was just on my way down to meet you." She introduces me to the other lady, telling me she is also a dog lover. "Come in, I want to show you something," she says, turning the key to her small apartment. "You've never been in here before, have you?"

"Sure I have, Vi," I answer, "Many times." A look of confusion appears momentarily, and I instantly regret my answer. Vi is painfully aware of the gaps in her memory. The last thing I want to do is upset her. "Your place is so pretty! I just love the way you have it decorated." The uncertainly disappears and the smile returns as she shows me a collection of pug pictures and figurines she has carefully arranged on her coffee table. I admire them - one of which Roxie and I gave her for her 83rd birthday - and pretend she has not shown me the same display every time I have visited.

I think back to the first time I met Vi. It was several years ago at the aging agency where I work as a counselor. I found her sharp wit and cheerful disposition engaging, and she quickly became a favorite client. But the thing that firmly united us was our love for pugs. Whenever Vi came to see me at the agency, she brought with her stories and pictures of her pug, Roxie, whom she clearly adored. She laughed as she talked about Roxie jumping on her lap as she read the paper, and showed me a picture of Roxie looking down at the print as if she were reading the headlines. She sometimes brought Roxie along with her. Roxie "lacked for nothing", in fact, she was seriously spoiled. When Roxie developed ongoing eye problems, she saw a vet often and also underwent surgery to save her sight. Vi would have done anything within her power for her Roxie. With help from her children, Vi and Roxie were able to remain independent for the first 10 years of Roxie's life.

Then Vi started forgetting things - just a little at first, then more frequently. The forgotten items gradually became bigger and more critical, from grocery items to bills and people's names. One day she came to see me for an appointment. 

"I've been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's Disease." she said characteristic aplomb. "My kids want me to sell the mobile home and go into assisted living. But I don't want to go anywhere without Roxie." At the mention of her pug, I saw the first shadow of worry flicker across her brow.

I had heard something about a recently enacted law that might prevent seniors from being forced to give up their pets. The next day, I consulted an animal welfare attorney I know. Would this law help Vi to keep her pug? "It doesn't apply to community living situations," was the response. I felt awful. Vi would be faced with giving up her beloved Roxie. It wasn't fair. I knew how desolate my life would be without my beloved dogs. It was bad enough that Vi was faced with losing the home she loved because of this awful disease. Asking her to lose Roxie as well was just too much. I had to do something. But what?

I saw no way to keep Vi and Roxie both safe and sharing the same space. But maybe there was something I could do to make the situation tolerable, if not perfect. I made Vi an offer to think about.

When Vi and her daughter came into my office one day and asked me if I would keep Roxie for her, I truthfully answered, "I wouldn't do it for anyone but you, Vi. What's one more pug at my crazy house?!"

So I became Roxie's "other mother". Roxie loves going to see Vi - she runs to her with kisses and a wagging tail. We always go on weekdays so we can get there early. On weekends, I like to sleep in. If we arrive too late, Vi has forgotten about us and is off somewhere else. I've learned to call the night before, and call again in the morning to announce that we're en route.

After work, I'm back at Manor House to retrieve our shared pug. I'm aware that persons with Alzheimer's forget things, but they always remember how they feel. Whenever I visit, I am careful to leave Vi feeling as happy as I possibly can. I pull the van into the circle drive, open the side door and greet both Vi and Roxie with a big smile.

"Did you two have a good day today?" I ask.
St Patrick's Day, 2015

"Oh, we had a wonderful day!" Vi answers excitedly. She tells me all about Wii bowling and Roxie eating cheerios and how everyone loved her shirt...I half-listen, laughing, because I so love her enthusiasm! Vi is such a special lady and has become so dear to me -  I feel lucky to be able to do this small thing for her.

Vi is a little teary as she tells Roxie goodbye. Once again, I wish Roxie could stay with the mom who loves her. Pets are allowed in many assisted living facilities, but those are the expensive ones at $2000 a month or more. Supportive living facilities like Manor House, that admit people without a lot of money,  never allow them to bring their pets. I remind myself that this is the next best thing. "Give me a kiss", she implores, and Roxie offers an exhausted lick in her general direction.Vi gives her a generous smooch in return. 

"I love you both!" she exclaims as we hug.

"We love you, too, Vi," I answer."Don't forget to call me. We'll set up a day for our next visit." I'll call her, of course. I give Vi my cell number every week, and every week she asks for it again.

As we pull away, I look in the rear view mirror. I see Vi happily chatting with a young woman at the entrance doors. Behind me, Roxie dozes in her car seat, sleepy from all the attention. 

As for me, I am already planning what outfit Roxie will wear for her next visit.