Pets and the Elderly

The Disabled Dog Who Gave Emma a Second Chance at Life

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

August is "Clear the Shelters" month, a nationwide pet adoption drive that helps find loving homes for animals in need. "Pets have always been important in my family's life, so the 'Clear the Shelters' event is very special," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "The unconditional love that pets offer does more than just keep you company when no one else is around. Animals languishing in shelters can offer so much to us and enrich our lives beyond expectations. Research has shown that they help adults with their psychological and physical well-being, and with children, they help improve their emotional and social skills. But the magic I've seen them do with seniors is absolutely amazing, and that's what we want to focus on in this blog."

Emma's Story

When RJ introduced me to Emma, she was a kind and talkative woman. Along with her, in a small stroller, was her dog named Pewter. As a retired licensed clinician in Massachusetts, I have always loved to connect with people on a personal level and listen to their stories, always unique and always interesting. I believe in the mantra that any life lived is a life worth discussing. As it was in Emma's case. RJ knew I would find her to be special.

RJ said that when he first met her, she was incredibly quiet, reserved, and didn't share much about her personal life. She ended up in his office after seeking help with daily money management and needing an estate plan. But after she adopted a very special dog, her personality changed, and she emerged from what turned out to be a self-imposed shell. This is a story about how Pewter, a disabled dog, helped to save Emma.

Emma's Young Life

Emma was an interesting personality. Dressed in brightly colored clothing and wheeling a small stroller containing her adopted dog, Pewter, dressed in baby clothing, appropriate for the chilly autumn weather conditions. Emma was emphatic that her dog was responsible for her still being with us at the time we spoke.

Emma felt lost in high school

"Pewter saved my life. No, not like rescuing me from a burning building or pulling me from a busy street because I wasn't paying attention, but in a way that I think many others like me could benefit from. I see Pewter as my hero and because of him, I am here today to talk about it. And, interesting enough, Pewter and I had so much in common when I first met him that I immediately fell in love."

As RJ had told me, Emma wasn't always so outgoing or able to converse openly with people she had just met. "Ever since high school, I was not someone people would look at twice. I was short, shy, and a bit rotund, so much so that I hated my yearbook pictures," she said, giggling nervously. "My parents were separated, my dad was an alcoholic, lived in New Hampshire and just seemed to disappear, so I lived with my mom here in Rhode Island. She had her own issues."

Her high school days consisted of staying home and losing herself in books and music. "I seldom went outside, instead choosing to keep my face in books. My favorites were "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, where Willy lived in a world of his own making, proud and in denial, much like my own father and I guess like me, too. And "The Other", where one of the kids could project himself into animals and other people, something I liked to do," she said. "It was always easier to be someone else but me."

"I also used music as an escape," Emma shared. "They say everyone has a song that's their anthem, mine is Janis Ian's song, "At Seventeen", a song about a girl who was growing up and struggling with being a teenager who did not fit in. I think I was a senior when it came out, it was either 1974 or 1975. I played that song over and over, wearing out the needle on my record player. I still have it and play it, only now on a DVD, my record player is long gone," she laughed. "It has unforgettable lyrics, at least for me, because it was my life, it was about me."

I remember driving home that night, thinking about what Emma told me about, and I vaguely remembered that song from my teen years as well. I looked it up and played it and because of that, I gained a better understanding of what she must have felt all her life. Before continuing Emma's story, I included the song and a video below.

Life After High School

After graduating high school in 1975, Emma entered the work world. "I couldn't go to college, so I took a job at a mill in Central Falls," she said. "Being on a sewing machine by myself suited my purposes. I didn't need to talk much; it was just me and the machine. But the seclusion and my inability to make friends began to catch up to me, especially when those I went to school with started getting married and having children. I wasn't that lucky, no one ever looked at me. Ever."

Emma soon began her downhill spiral into mental illness, which she flirted with in high school. "I became isolated and depressed, something I thought all of us ugly girls felt, but for me, it was the beginning of a lifelong sickness. Depression is a battle I never stop fighting. There were times in my life when I wanted to dive into the street, be hit by a big truck and it would be over. I mean, who would miss me? But then I would think about my mom and come back to my reality, as bad as it was."

Mill work in Providence and Pawtucket

During her two decades of working in mills in the Providence and Pawtucket area, she did find some happiness. "I met a boyfriend there, a maintenance man named Jerry. We never got married but lived together for a long time until he got sick. Through those years, my depression would come and go, but as I got older, it seemed to last longer and become deeper."

As her depression got worse, she eventually had to leave her job. "There were weeks that I could not even get out of bed, how my boyfriend put up with me I'll never know. This went on for years. Then Jerry had a stroke, ended up in a nursing home and then I was alone again. Jerry died less than six months later. This was followed by my mom's death. I ended up on disability and a prisoner in my home."

She recalls receiving her disability check one day and getting ready to go to the store when suddenly, and without warning, her world just seemed to collapse around her.

"I was on my way to the store and walked across the bridge over the Blackstone River in downtown Pawtucket. I stopped, looked down, and I figured I had enough. I kept hearing that song over and over in my head, thinking about Jerry and my mom, realizing that nothing had changed for me in decades, and I was alone again, for the rest of my life this time."

Emma's turning point

Emma said what she was thinking alarmed her. "Dying no longer seemed like a scary thing to me, in fact, the only scary thing was if I would just be hurt in my jump and need to live the rest of my days in a nursing home bed hooked up to tubes and wires, no longer able to take any actions to end my life. Lying there deep in depression, not able to speak, wishing I had done a better job of ending it, stuck in a body that could not move, unable to escape."

At that point, she dropped to the ground crying and lost touch with all that was happening around her. "I remember smelling the river, feeling the warm sidewalk, and sobbing uncontrollably. I'm not sure what happened next, but I woke up in a Providence hospital in the psych ward. They told me the police had taken me there."

Thankfully, the hospitalization turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her with one of her therapies leading to a life-altering decision for her.

The Perfectly Imperfect Dog

"While there, one of the therapies was bringing in a dog," Emma said. "Now, I have been around dogs before, but this dog only had three legs. There was something so special about this dog that I immediately bonded with it. I looked at him again, and that song played in my head, 'It was long ago and far away, the world was younger than today, when dreams were all they gave for free, to ugly duckling girls like me...'"

Dogs like Pewter are available

"Although he was disabled and not what someone would consider a show dog, he was truly an ugly duckling, but very happy, tail wagging a mile a minute. And how he made me feel really turned around my thinking," she stated with a huge smile.

After being discharged from treatment, Emma obtained the name of the organization that brought the dog in and placed a call to them. "I loved that dog, and I knew there were other animals like him. After all, I was far from perfect, and I wanted to love a dog that was perfectly imperfect like me. That's when I was introduced to Pewter, a dog with a back injury who dragged his legs behind him. He was so very right for me."

Then came the concerns from others. Because she was a person with major depression, how could she handle a puppy, her friends asked, especially one with a physical disability. One of her friends, rather bluntly, said that she couldn't even take care of herself, so how could she possibly care for a dog that needed as much or more care than she did?

"But as it turned out, the people at that organization had more confidence in me than my friends did, and I proved to all the critics that they were wrong. In the end, I did pretty well, and Pewter changed my world, and I hope I changed his," Emma said happily.

Made for Each Other

"With Jerry gone, I had to change and become someone another life could rely on. I was now being forced to take care of myself if this little animal was to live," stated Emma. "One of the problems I had in the past was forgetting to take my antidepressants, but with Pewter needing medication as well, I took mine along with him. When I take him out, people ask about him and this has allowed me to be more sociable and talk with people. Pewter has given me the confidence I never had."

"Getting Pewter has forced me to stay healthy mentally because he needs me. To be honest, I think I need him more. Well, we need each other," she laughed. "Pewter has this calming presence. When you live with depression, you feel so lonely and so isolated that it's easy to give up, but with my Pewter, he has forced me to change my thinking. He makes me get out of bed to clean him up, feed him, and take him to the vet. It really feels good to have another life depending on you so much."

The connection between Pewter and Emma was powerful. "Pewter changed my life in so many ways that I can't even count them. I know that I am completely loved, and when Pewter and I listen to the Janice Ian song together, I say to him, 'we are two ugly ducklings, but we are beautiful to each other.' We will be together for the rest of our lives." Sadly, Emma died a few months later after suffering a heart attack, but Pewter moved in with a neighbor who had as much love for him as she did.

"Emma's story is unique yet similar to the hundreds of seniors I have worked with who have benefited from having a pet in their lives," stated Attorney Connelly. "Pets really do work miracles for some seniors, including providing emotional and physical health benefits. So, this month during the clear the shelters event, consider adopting a pet and you may find your forever friend like Emma did."

Please click on the photo below to learn more about the Clear the Shelters event in your area.

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