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Posted: August 09, 2004

Practical Caregiving

Our Elderly Sometimes Go Overboard with Pets

I received an email from Jan that sent me searching for information on how to help our elderly who try to ?save? animals, only to end up harming them through neglect. This happens much more than I had realized, and it is something we should all be aware of and know what to do. Of course, not everyone who has several animals in the house ends up mistreating them.

Before we go to her question, I must straighten something out from a previous column. In my July 26, 2004, column titled ? Research and Request to Get Benefits You Deserve,? I said www.benefitscheckup.org is a free site set up by the government. Someone was kind enough to email me with the correct information. Benefits Check Up is a service of the National Council on the Aging, and it is supported by several organizations, including the U.S. Department of Commerce. If you are interested in their sponsors, go to their website and scroll down to the bottom of the page.

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Now, on to this week's question:

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Dear Jean :

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I am gradually taking over the oversight of care for my sister who lives a couple hours away, but I don't think I can do anything to help her. Her memory is getting worse, but I think that she could do better if she tried.

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She complains about not having any money, but she has enough to spend on all her pets. She has 10 cats and three dogs which she keeps in the basement. She had a hip replacement recently, and she had a stroke a couple years ago. This is such an impossible situation. Do you have any ideas?

Jan J., Des Moines , Iowa

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Dear Jan :

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You are dealing with two very different problems. The first is your sister's memory. It may be worse than you realize, and she may not be able to do better than she is doing right now. People who have a hard time remembering do a very good job of hiding the problem from anyone they don't see very often.

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I think you should set up an appointment for her to have a thorough physical examination. Tell the doctor your concerns about her memory. Once you know what you are dealing with, you will be better able to find ways to cope with her memory loss. You may need to admit her to an assisted living facility or nursing home. I hope for both of you that this is something that can be solved or at least improved.

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The second problem is the number of animals she has. This characteristic is called ?animal hoarding,? and it might get worse if you don't do something to help her out of this situation.

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These are just a few news headlines I found within the past month on this topic:

  • Dozens of animals were removed from filthy conditions.
  • Twenty-two cats, 21 birds and six dogs were taken from a home.
  • Police arrested a man and his mother.
  • A 48-year-old son and his 90-year-old mother lived in a home with 53 cats.
  • Humane officers removed 50 cats from the home of a 71-year-old woman.
  • An elderly woman owned about 40 dogs found living in her home.

.If you merely take the animals away from your sister, she will probably start gathering them again, one at a time. She won't see anything wrong with keeping so many animals. If she doesn't have money for things she needs for herself, she also won't be able to pay the veterinary bills to take care of the animals' immunizations and health care. In this case, matters will get worse and worse. You need a different answer.

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First, let's try to understand the person who hoards animals. They are usually lonely and feel insecure and unsafe. They gradually lose contact with relatives and friends, and build themselves a safe home where they receive unconditional love from one or two animals. They don't want to face death, and don't want any animal to die.

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They gradually add animals to their home, one at a time until they have so many animals that they can't take care of them. The animals become their closest friends, and when they can't take care of the animals, they usually can't take care of themselves. They don't seem to see what their living conditions are. They simply feel safe and loved there, surrounded by animals.

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Hoarding is a compulsion to gather or possess that a person can't seem to stop. Hoarders didn't start out feeling that way. It just gradually takes over their lives. It's a psychological illness. Since the study of this illness is relatively new, there are no guidelines to help overcome the problem. The animal hoarder needs counseling, and sometimes a senior care home that will care for them. It is important the counselor has a basic understanding of hoarding and how others are helping the hoarder in their recovery.

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If I understand what you are saying, her animals are healthy and her home is basically clean. If she has a form of dementia, she may need the care of a nursing home or assisted living facility. That would mean she couldn't have all her pets. If she needs a place that will help her take care of herself, try to find one that encourages visits from animals. As she develops friends, she might not feel the intense need for the companionship of animals.

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Your sister clearly needs help with her compulsion of taking care of animals in her home. I also would talk to her doctor about this, but there are other places you also should contact for information. Call a veterinarian, the Humane Society in your area, mental health agency, psychologists, psychiatrists, other therapists, and/or animal care protection agencies in your area.

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If your sister's home is dirty, if the animals are dirty and sick, and/or if she doesn't take care of herself -- get help immediately. Call your local animal rescue league or police department to find out how they can help. You might just save her life and the lives of her animals.

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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