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What I Learned About Growing Old ... From My Dogs

Proof they've mastered aging far better than humans.

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Close up of old yellow Labrador's face
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When I married Charlie two years ago, we became a blended family with four dogs — all of them older, just like us. We made jokes about how we wished they were eligible for Medicare and swore that when AARP The Magazine came in the mail, they pawed through it to look for their pictures.

The truth is, as dogs get older, they fall apart in many of the same ways that we do. Their vision and hearing fail, their joints become arthritic and, yes, they sometimes make a straight dash for the doggy door when they wake up in the morning and don’t always make it.

Dogs have kidneys that fail. Dogs develop skin bumps and lumps. Dogs get cancers. Dogs can even suffer dementia. But there’s one big difference between how dogs and people age: Dogs are much cooler about it.

Here are a few other things I’ve learned about aging from watching my dogs:

Ignorance is indeed bliss.

When the veterinarian delivered the news last March that Dolce, our beloved 15-year-old poodle-bichon frise mix, had bladder cancer, I literally dissolved in a heap on the exam-room floor. I wept until my husband put us — Dolce and me — back in the car to go home. Dolce, however, had other ideas. Tradition in our family is that after a vet visit, we all go to our favorite dog-friendly cafe and order the Doggie Daily Special. On the day we learned Dolce had cancer, it was a chicken and rice bowl for her, and it did not disappoint.

Dolce licked her bowl clean, begged for and got some of my banana pancakes and was pleased as punch.

How much happier would we all be if we just lived our lives, like our pets do, without worrying how close we are to its end? No, I’m not suggesting that we stop going to see doctors or deny ourselves treatment options that early detection can sometimes offer. But can we shield ourselves from being consumed by dark thoughts? Yes, we all know we are going to die. Got it. Now can we just stop obsessing over when?

Make the most of every day, even when body parts hurt.

We appreciate how hard this is to do sometimes, yet dogs consistently manage it. Guss, our 12-year-old German shepherd, entertained Charlie’s adult daughter for hours when she visited just a few days before Guss died. He chased balls that she threw, gave her sloppy wet kisses and barked joyously when she asked if he wanted to go for a walk.

He slept most of the next day and hardly touched his food, but every time we said her name, he wagged his tail and gave us a smile. He had had a fun day. What more can any of us ask for but the ability to live in the moment and make the most of each day?

Ann Brenoff poses with her dog Harry. Courtesy of Author
Posing with Harry, a 13 year old field spaniel

Appreciate more, complain less.

Being a caregiver for a loved one literally can be the world’s most thankless job. I mean it. I did it. Patients often neglect to thank you and regularly can fail to appreciate all you do for them.

When you ask a sick human how they feel, they will rattle off a litany of what ails them, often making you regret that you asked.

Dogs do it better. When I come home to my 13-year-old field spaniel Harry, who suffers mobility issues and kidney failure, I generally find him snoring and sprawled across the doorway. It takes him a few minutes to wake up, remember where he is and stand up. But he wags his tail enthusiastically, starting from the second my key unlocks the door.

Dogs don’t complain; they just appreciate that you came home to them and for that small gesture, they love you.

Even old dogs can be taught new tricks.

Humans are generally more resistant when it comes to adapting to age-related limitations. We don’t like giving up our old ways. Have you ever tried to persuade a 90-year-old to surrender his driver’s license? We resist having to wear glasses and don’t want to get a hearing aid even though we constantly ask people to “speak up.”

Dogs, on the other hand, never get hung up on the stuff they did as puppies and can't do anymore. Nina, our 13-year-old corgi, scampers up and down the ramp Charlie installed on the steps to our backyard for her. She quickly figured out that using her ramp sure beat tumbling down the cement steps and hurting herself.

Don't ever stop dancing on the wild side.

On the day before Dolce succumbed, she had a major case of the zoomies. She ran around the house like a puppy, leaping on couches and chairs, and scooting between our high counter stools with the precision of a slalom racer. She jumped on and off the bed, dashed around the garden, emptied her toy box with gusto and proudly pranced around with my husband’s dirty sock in her mouth, daring him to chase her to get it back. It was a good day, albeit her last.

I compare that day to how many humans curtail their activities to accommodate aging. How many times have you heard — or said — things like “I don’t drive at night anymore,” or “We eat dinner at 5:30 and are in bed by 8 p.m.”

Sincere questions: Why don’t we go out dancing anymore, or be the last ones to leave the party, or take vacations that push us beyond our comfort zones like we used to? Why do we often lose our spunk when we get older?

When we tell ourselves we can’t, is it because we don’t want to or that we are afraid to? Or maybe the dogs just do this part better.

What's your pet taught you, if anything, about growing old? Let us know in the comments below.

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