Wisdom//

Everything I Need to Know About Aging I Learned From My Cat

What my 19-year-old cat taught me about growing old.

Photographee/ Shutterstock
Photographee/ Shutterstock

Somewhere, a cat was meowing, but it was not either of our two cats. Looking out the window, I saw a beautiful fluffy grey-and-white cat sitting on the back steps. The cat was staring in the window at me and meowing. Immediately, I went out to investigate. I bent over to pet the cat, and she jumped into my arms. This cat wanted some affection. She was clean, and appeared to be well-fed and healthy. I figured she was passing through. When it became clear she was staying, we named her Alexis Theodora Kitty, or Alex the Kitty. Several years later, at the age of 19, she completed her visit.

Her longevity amazed me. When her companion cat died, Alex went through a very rough patch. She lost weight, and her fur fell out.  I began to realize that she would soon be gone. “Soon” actually turned into two and a half years later. And during that time, I began to look on her as my aging coach or mentor. She was showing me what it was like to be an old lady. Watching her experience the highs and lows of aging, I was amazed at the grace and dignity with which she navigated her days. Somedays, she would look at me as if to say, “Can you believe this?” But she forged ahead, making every day her own, teaching me valuable lessons like these as she did:

1. Some days , all you want to do is hibernate. Maybe you want to stay in your own space and not be bothered. There were a few days where Alex either did cat meditation all day, or the equivalent of reading a good cat book. She ventured out for food and water and the litter box. She knew what her energy levels could handle, and she planned her day accordingly.

2. It’s OK if you don’t want to socialize, but don’t keep to yourself for too long. After a period of hibernation, Alex would emerge and hang out with Willy, our new cat, and with me. She would make her presence known. She would sit on my lap while I worked, and kept Willy in his place by eating his food and giving him a playful smack. We would never have forgotten about her, but she was not going to give us a chance.

3. Some days nothing smells or tastes good; some days everything tastes good. It’s about the balance between the extremes. As she aged, Alex either ate, or she did not. I do not recall too many days when she snacked. The good news was that until her last week, the not eating and the eating remained in balance. I recall watching my mother-in-law go through something very similar. Some days she would tell me that everything was too salty. Other days, she would clean her plate and reach across to finish mine. Her weight was consistent until the week before she died.

4. Accept compliments and affection with grace. Alex never knew herself to be anything other than a pretty cat. Even when her fur fell out, and she had a bald stripe down her back, I told her she was a pretty girl. And she would look at me, blink, and rub her head against my hand. No matter how old you get, and how much your looks may change, to someone you will be beautiful. Let them shower you with hugs and compliments. It’s good for both of you.

5. Things are going to change. Parts of your body will work differently or not at all. At some point, Alex lost her hearing. I don’t know exactly when it happened. I discovered it after her companion cat died. One day, Alex just started screaming, and as much as I called to her, she did not respond. Probably she had relied upon her companion cat as her hearing guide. After a few months, we both adjusted. I learned that if I needed her attention, I could thump on the floor with my foot, and she would feel the vibrations and respond. She learned that she could meow at me like always, and I would respond. She adapted to her hearing limitation and kept going.

6. Don’t complain. I do not know how to explain this, but somehow Alex knew how to let me know when she needed a visit to the veterinarian versus when she just needed to be left alone. I am sure she had aches and pains. Her stomach bothered her, and she had digestive issues. She went about her day, tolerating it all. She was never grouchy, and never loud, or excessively meowing. That’s an admirable goal: to learn to live with your aches and pains and keep them to yourself, yet know when it is time to speak up or ask for help with specific pain or issues.

7. Enjoy the simple things, like fresh air and a patch of sunlight. As a young cat, Alex loved to go outdoors. She had no intention of becoming an indoor cat. In the last couple of years, she would go next door to eat the neighbor’s grass, do a lap around her yard, and then come in. In her last year, she would eat the neighbor’s grass, come back, lie in the sun, and then come in. In her last few weeks, she would go outside, sniff the air, lie down in the sun and come back in within ten minutes. You, too, should seek to continue to enjoy fresh air and sunlight, good company, beautiful art, and music that brings you joy, for as long as you can.

8. Let the people who are important to you know that you love them. Sometimes I would look down, and Alex would be staring up at me, just watching, looking at me, and giving me that slow affectionate cat blink. Cats are not always given credit for being expressive, but in her way, that little cat loved me. Don’t let anyone around you guess how you feel. Don’t assume that they know — tell them.

9. Don’t apologize for being old or for needing special care. Alex was always unapologetically high-maintenance. She only became more so as she aged. She needed digestive aids, special medicine, and more than one type of special food. She drank lactose-free milk. She did not always hit the litter box. And she had no problem waking me up to let me know that she needed something. None of this gave her any concern. And it should not bother you, either.

10. Live your life to the fullest and make every moment count. On more than on occasion, I thought Alex was at death’s door. She rallied several times. I joked with friends that the Grim Reaper would come, Alex would start to follow him, and then she would stop and say, “Hey, wait a minute, I am a cat. I have nine lives. Read the contract, buddy. It’s not time yet.” You and I do not have nine lives, but we do have the ability to maximize our time. Live until you have no more life left to live.

I don’t know when my clock will run out, but when it does, I can only hope to have lived and aged up to the standards set by Alex the Kitty.

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