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A furry angel prepared me for Alzheimer’s

Zorro was a special cat and I didn’t know it at the time, but he was my furry angel. He prepared me in unexpected ways to help with my mom’s Alzheimer’s Disease.

My brother called one day and said “I found your cat!” I immediately said “No, no, no, Fletcher would never share this house with another cat!” Dave told me I really needed to give him a chance. So, this six-month-old tuxedo cat came home and we enjoyed a few days of hissing, snarling, spitting and general chaos.

furry angel and hospiceMom lived with me and liked to watch old movies. The Mark of Zorro was playing on TV that Saturday. Mom suddenly looked up, “That cat looks like Zorro!” So, the cat had a name. But, it wasn’t working out and I planned to hand him back over on Monday. That Sunday morning I found Fletch and Zorro curled up on the sofa together, fast friends for life. Done. I didn’t know it at the time, but that decision would change my life.

A cat named Zorro

Zorro was one of those once-in-a-lifetime cats who bond to your very soul. He and I were inseparably linked. He always knew when I needed him, often before I knew it myself. I had endometriosis and would sometimes wake up to him already lying on my stomach, giving me comfort. He aged very well and was already older than most cats when he was diagnosed with feline leukemia. The symptoms of FeLV are pretty rough. My vet said the kindest thing would be to put him down. I said “If your best friend got leukemia, would you put him down?” It was time for a new vet.

furry angel and alzheimer's

A friend recommended a cat-only practice, where the lead vet had just returned from special training on feline leukemia. Dr. Shoemaker assured me we could work together to make Zorro comfortable. I’ve always been fearful of needles and was terrified when she told me I’d have to do sub-cue IVs several times each week. How could I possibly handle that?

The next day, Zorro and I retired to the bathroom. I put him on the vanity and when he looked into my eyes I knew it would be okay. My hands shook as I gently inserted the needle under his skin. He didn’t flinch. I started the flow of fluids and began to sing to him. He lay there completely relaxed, confident I would never hurt him. This became our ritual. I would sing songs lasting about three minutes and the other cats would sit outside the bathroom door, quietly listening to our special time.

Mom showed signs of dementia

furry angel and alzheimer's disease

Meanwhile, Mom had moved back to the family home and each of us kids started noticing odd behaviors. She was struggling to choose words or choosing a similar but incorrect word. Then she got lost in her car. Instead of calling one of us, she knocked on a stranger’s door. Soon after, my big sis Jeanne retired and moved back from Arizona to live with Mom. Showing worsening signs of dementia, Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Jeanne became her primary caregiver, with Dave and me as backup.

Zorro was getting older

Years passed and Zorro was really getting old. He developed cataracts and a heart murmur. At some point, it was easier to list what was right rather than what was wrong. But he was happy and he loved being with us. He became incontinent and I gladly cleaned up after him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him I didn’t mind because I loved him. Zorro trusted and loved me back. I learned to do whatever he needed, and how to cope with it. That’s just what you do for someone you love.

furry angel prepare me for Alzheimer's Disease

One day I found him limp on the garage floor. I took him in and the vet said I should let him go. I said, “What do you think, old man? Are you done?” He got to his feet and his milky white eyes had fire in them. “Message received,” said Dr. Shoemaker. “He’s not ready.”

We had a great week. He was happy and comfortable. One evening he came upstairs when I got home from work and sat on my lap for twenty minutes purring. Then he looked me in the eyes and said clearly, “It’s time. Call everyone to say goodbye.” I called out to my husband and told him to bring the other cats. “Zorro wants to say goodbye.” We sat and held him until he took his last breath at the age of 23. His urn now sits on the mantle, waiting for me to join him.

Alzheimer’s takes a toll

Soon after, Mom started sundowning. She would get up in the night and open the front door, sure someone was coming. She would go days without sleeping, leaving Jeanne exhausted and frustrated. You never really know what indignities illness will bring. Getting stuck in the bathtub, incontinence, forgetting how to brush your teeth, being unable to clean yourself…so many little things that become big things. There was irrational anger and strange paranoia. It was mind-numbing to listen to the repetition and obsessions. Jeanne might summon me anytime, day or night, when she could not cope.

One day I suddenly realized, “This is what Zorro was training me for!” That cat was truly an angel, sent to help me realize that I was capable of exceeding my own expectations. He knew I would need to be there for Mom and my family in ways which went far beyond what I did for him. He left me with the skills to recognize that you do whatever you need to do for someone you love.

A second angel appeared

Rosa was an Alzheimer's nurse

Another angel appeared as if on cue. Cousin Rosa, an Alzheimer’s nurse, was part mentor, part coach, and became another sister to us. She was always there with suggestions that really worked. Home was becoming unsafe and Mom moved to a care facility. Things went pretty well for a while before it got tough again. Rosa told us it was time for hospice. I had zero clue Alzheimer’s patients were eligible for hospice. We made the call and the next day was eye-opening.

Mom had a special new bed and chair that helped keep her comfortable. The overworked staff had a new resource. Our wonderful hospice team had great tips for helping Mom and helping us cope. Each day they called to check on my sister, wanting to be sure she was emotionally okay. The nurse reminded her to eat and get rest. The social worker helped her cope with the guilt of being unable to cope alone.

Jeanne and I started to attend an Alzheimer’s support group. Those who were also on the journey knew our fears and challenges and helped us find our path. They were there with practical advice and emotional support. My number one suggestion for anyone placed in a caregiver’s role is to find a support group to lean on. Help others as you help yourself on the journey.

The end was quiet

Mom died quietly in bed, free from all confusion and suffering. Hospice was there for all of us. They inspired me to change careers and I went to work for Kansas City Hospice. My life changed thanks to a cat, an Alzheimer’s nurse, and a caring hospice team. My job as Communications Manager is about helping people understand the philosophy of hospice. I’ve written patient education pieces. I contributed to guides to help families like mine. When I write a blog post or put out social media, I share a connection with others walking the same path. Friends and family rely on me for advice. Read my blog post I’m no expert, but…

My long and varied career is coming to a close. I hope I have helped other families faced with difficult decisions. Hospice is not something to be feared. Hospice is about getting the right support at the right time. It gives your family the chance to step back from caregiving to focus on relationships. Each moment of life is precious.

My advice

I hope my story inspires you to exceed your own expectations. Ask for help when you need it. But, above all, know you can do whatever you must do for someone you love.

No barriers are too high.

No challenges are too tough.

There is no limit to what you can do for love.

Zorro taught me that. 

About the author

Wanda Kelsey-Mendez, MBA, was Communications Manager for Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care for almost 8 years. Her duties included creating marketing materials, writing for various formats, creating online content, and graphic design. She will retire on July 1, 2021.

About Us

 
The mission of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care is to bring expert care, peace of mind, comfort, guidance, and hope to people who are affected by life-limiting illness or by grief. Our vision is that each person in our community is valued from life through death and each family is supported in their grief.

 


3 Comments on “A furry angel prepared me for Alzheimer’s”

  1. Marie Marley Says:

    What a wonderful story about love, compassion and the human spirit. Zorro was indeed a blessing.

  2. Sarah Fine Says:

    Wanda is my cousin, this is a wonderful story about my family.
    Thanks Wanda

  3. David Kelsey Says:

    Who would have thought such an inspiring story would come from a kitten I found in a living in a brush pile while walking on a damp night in a local park. Glad you kept him and you provided support to each other for so many years. Thanks for sharing this story.

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