Photo of John sitting with pet cat.

The power of pets

How two cats brought comfort and joy through difficult times.
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When I married John in 1958, he was not as accustomed to having cats as I was. Over time, his attitude changed.

In our nearly 63 years of marriage, we lived in four countries on three continents. During most of those years, in Canada and abroad, we have been the happy owners of at least one feline friend, often two.

In 1989 we settled in Hanover, Ont., where I continued my career in education. By that time, John was retired. We had a succession of indoor-outdoor cats that brought us a great deal of joy. Most of them found us; they had become lost or decided to leave their former homes and arrived at our door.

It was a very sad day in September 2009 when 11-year-old Pitch had to be put to sleep. I explained to Dr. Sally Parks, our veterinarian, how difficult the situation was for us, since we had decided we wouldn’t have another cat. She told me it was a pity because she had a wonderful, delightful kitten ready to be adopted.

Photo of John and Patricia's two cats 'Ralphie and Captain Kirk'

John had battled heart disease since 1987, and Dr. Parks explained how studies have shown that having a pet reduces heart rate and stress levels. We went home and looked after burying Pitch, which was a heartbreaking experience. After a short discussion, we called Dr. Parks and agreed we would return and decide if the kitten was right for us.

The clinic had given the kitten the name Captain Kirk, because he had been found at a nursery where Captain Kirk hostas were sold.

We immediately fell in love with Captain Kirk; he had such charm. It was as though he knew we were meant for one another. Captain Kirk settled into our life in no time and helped us get over losing Pitch. We decided he would be an indoor cat and we would take him out on a leash. Kirk, as we called him for short, adapted to this quite well. A few days after Kirk arrived, a Manx kitten approached John on the golf course. The poor bedraggled kitten was obviously a stray. John knew she needed a home. We named her Ralphie after another Manx we had owned named Ralph.

Captain Kirk loved Ralphie immediately. He was happy to have a playmate! And so we became owners of two cats once again, even though we had made the decision not to have any more animals.

We didn’t know then how important this decision would be.

In 2012, after a visit to a memory clinic, John was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). At that time, John functioned very well, but we were told MCI often progresses to more serious memory loss.

Armed with all the information, we did our best to remain positive, always hoping our situation would stay as it was.

The cats became paramount in John’s life. He spent more and more time with them during the day, and they always slept with us. With each passing day, Ralphie and Kirk became more like human friends for John.

In 2015, we decided to downsize to a smaller home, as John’s ability to manage was decreasing. We found an adult community in Port Rowan, near Lake Erie.

In our new location, John’s most frequent and most enjoyable daily activity, all year round, was his walks with Captain Kirk. They would head for the park, Kirk on his leash, for a stroll around the pond. John met new people every day — people stopped their cars or paused on their walks to greet him and Captain Kirk, and it was obvious Kirk was a valuable member of the community.

As John’s disease progressed, he couldn’t remember which house was ours, but Captain Kirk knew where we lived.

We immediately fell in love with Captain Kirk; he had such charm. It was as though he knew we were meant for one another.

This was both a sad and a happy discovery. John’s memory was continuing to decline, but for a short time I knew Kirk would get them home.

When the time came that John needed extra help, we had caregivers who quickly realized the importance of Ralphie and Kirk in his life. John and Captain Kirk went for walks with a caregiver — later they used John’s walker — and it was wonderful to watch the parade go around our crescent.

We took advantage of short-term-stay opportunities at a long-term care home where John would spend a few days and nights. On his first short-term stay, the staff gave him a robotic cat to enjoy while he was there. I had never seen one before and was amazed to discover that when the battery was engaged, the fluffy kitty would meow, purr and stretch. John was so enamoured with the cat, he packed it in his suitcase to bring home!

The shutdown due to the pandemic took a tremendous toll on John. His whole world became centred on Ralphie and Kirk. In October 2020, it was time for him to enter long-term care on a permanent basis — without his closest companions.

Before he left home, our daughter gave him his own robotic cat. She even managed to find one that looked exactly like Captain Kirk. The faux Captain Kirk has a tag just like the one on his namesake, with his name and John’s room number, so when the cat goes astray, he manages to find his way back to John’s room. John no longer recognizes me and sleeps a great deal of the time, but a way to settle him if he needs calming is to give him his current Captain Kirk.

These days, when I arrive home after visiting John, Ralphie and Kirk are usually in the window waiting for me. They are a comfort now that I am alone after so many years as part of a couple. There is no question in my mind about how invaluable they have been since they unexpectedly arrived in our lives and throughout John’s decline and, now, the important part they play in helping me adjust to my new circumstances. 

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