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How My Older Cats Taught Me About Life. Really!

More and more, I've aspired to follow their lead.

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Domestic cat with eyeglasses
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When my husband and I married seven years ago, he agreed to a package deal. I came with two middle-aged cats I had adopted long before our wedding. Tom and I were middle-aged, too. He was 61. I was 53 (11 and 9 in cat years). I couldn’t ride into my golden years with a man who was cat averse. Felines are essential for my mental health.        

What I never expected was that learning to accept the eccentricities and challenges that developed during Lulu and Moki’s twilight years would teach me how to live with my husband’s peccadillos (and mine) as we grew older.        

Certainly, there are reasons it’s simpler to love and forgive a cat than a person. A study at Washington State University points out that just 10 minutes of petting an animal can reduce the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, the benefit of feline companionship goes far beyond that for a middle-aged women's well-being.        

Could I bring the unconditional love my cats inspire in me, to Tom, a man who admits he only hears 25 percent of what I say, 30 percent on a good day? Women’s communication skills give us an advantage over men in building stronger relationships with felines. According to professor Michael Nappier, DVM, of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine: “Women tend to be better at interpreting or perceiving others’ feelings” and they “take the time to pick up nonverbal communication.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t men who love felines, too. Tom certainly is one of them, as is Nappier. “I love working with cats,” he adds. “I am the resident crazy cat dude.”        

Cats and their sweet purring and soft cuddles can even make you live longer, according to a study published in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology. Researchers found a link between owning a cat and a decreased risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. And, as any cat owner knows, the vibration and sound of a purring cat can calm the nerves, something the study also noted.        

Like many people, I relied on my cats more during the COVID lockdown. I worried they suffered from excessive quarantine cat-handling syndrome, though they never complained. I had time to notice that Lulu’s elegant appearance showed signs of advancing years. She developed a touch of gray on her scruff. I thought it was beautiful, like all the swirls on her lovely tabby coat. I didn’t always feel the same about my own graying locks, but I figured if I could accept the beauty of aging in my cats, why not in myself? Even Tom encouraged me to grow out my silver hair, and I came to appreciate my own shimmering, natural color.        

When Moki reached an age that he could have qualified for a senior discount, his neurotic behavior spiked. At times, he would bolt out the door, yowl and attack Lulu. Though mostly, Moki was an incredibly sweet little guy. He often wanted the ultrasoft fur on his belly rubbed. So, I loved him madly and took the misbehavior he sometimes dished out. Shelly Volsche, a professor at Boise State University who studies human and animal bonding, explained why that might be the case. She says cats “help alleviate loneliness, because you have somebody there to whom you can speak, you can play with, you can snuggle.”   

I suspect my forgiving attitude toward Moki’s annoying behaviors helped soften my response to some of Tom’s maddening ways, like leaving all the travel planning up to me.        

While my cats have taught me plenty, Tom has also shown me a thing or two. Early in our relationship, we had a bad spat. As usual, it was about something he didn’t follow up on that I asked him to do. OK, perhaps I pestered him about this unfinished task too many times.        

Instead of shutting me out, our short-lived tiff inspired him to play me a George Burns and Gracie Allen song, “I Love Her, That’s Why.” It’s a tune in which the couple recount one another’s foibles with such sweetness that I imagined Tom and I could have a long, happy partnership like theirs — and that I shouldn’t pester him so much.        

More and more, I’ve aspired to follow Lulu’s lead. Her graceful, low-key nature has stayed the same since her kitten years. But even she’s had her share of misdeeds, like tracking litter box pawprints on the dining table. In the same way I accept that Tom doesn’t always swiftly do what I ask, I took Lulu’s dining table adventures as part of her charm.        

Nappier confirmed that people can still build positive relationships with cats who have bad habits. “For a cat that has challenging mannerisms and maybe is a bully ... it’s still a valuable thing [to own a cat],” he says. “Particularly for individuals who are getting older or maybe have a risk of feeling isolated or lonely. And, all of those cats I’ve ever met, they still have redeeming qualities.”        

That’s also true for spouses because, admittedly, I’m not always easy to get along with either. I can be as high-strung as Moki.        

Fortunately, like our felines, Tom and I have more positive traits than drawbacks. We appreciate one another’s warmheartedness. We’re each other’s biggest fans. And we can thank Moki and Lulu for helping me get ready for marriage. “People have said that having a cat is like preparing to live with someone, because cats do things on their terms," Nappier says.          

While older adults are sometimes portrayed as unable to learn new tricks, Tom and I make compromises to build our imperfectly happy union. We adapt to one another’s less-appealing qualities, just as we do with our cats. And I get those same feel-good hormones that come from petting kitties when Tom and I share the couch, watching the hysterical Schitt's Creek.        

For me to age with Lulu’s grace means I don’t hold out hopes that my husband will suddenly start organizing his computer files. And it’s unlikely I’ll ever stop being so blunt. As with our cats, we embrace being together — as we are.

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