I wrote this as the cover story for the April ’18 issue of Harmony, a magazine for silver / senior citizens. Find the edited version of the story (the main story and a few sub / box stories) on their site here.
“They got us bonding together again.” When asked how his pet dogs have been beneficial to him and his family, that is Benny’s spontaneous response. Benny, or properly, Benedict Gnaniah elaborates. “We are a strong-headed family. Comes from reading so much.” There are shelves upon shelves of classics and other literary works in each member’s room of the duplex house in Chennai. “Each has their opinions, and is expressive about them. As a result, there are often fireworks and tensions among us. The dogs changed all that.” The dogs under discussion are Mulan and Leia, both indies adopted from the street, and both – as testimony to the family’s stated literary inclinations – named after strong mythical / fictional women characters.
Benny, himself a youthful 59, continues. “Before the dogs came into our lives, conversations at the table wouldn’t be about finance or politics, but harder things like ‘When are you planning to get married,’ ‘What happened to that interview you went for,’ ‘How are we going to pay for that,’ causing everyone to super-stress out.” After first Mulan, and then Leia came in, the conversations started emanating from the canines. ‘Oh, she did this today…’ ‘She doesn’t look good to me…’ ‘Man, they are becoming a handful…’ As a result, talks and tensions between the family members began smoothening. The dogs, quite simply, got them warmed up again as a family.
Pets can add a lot, physically and emotionally, to a silver’s life. Be it a more high-level purpose as in the case of Benny, or more everyday benefits such as companionship, compassion, care, security and the famed unconditional love. We listened in to several silvers and their pet experiences.
Have pet, will not fret
Pune resident, Shilpa Mahajani, 50, thinks back to the time when her family’s bungalow was undergoing renovation and didn’t have the front door for a period of six months. No intruder could dare come in, thanks to the two full-grown Dobermans they had. Since then, the male Dobe (Raja) passed away, the female (Rani) remains, and the door has been reinstated. Rani now roams the compound of the bungalow, each stride an intimidating one to any newcomer at the gate.
However, to their owners (or to use the more politically correct term, pet parents), the animals are an endless loop of love, especially when the parents return home. Deanne Menon, 59, of Mumbai finds it de-stressing to get back home after a hard day’s work: waiting for her with a brisk wag and buoyant body is Lakshmibai aka Lakshmi aka Laku, an indie adopted from the road as a pup about 14 years ago. Research corroborates that having a pet helps bring down cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and helps up serotonin (the happy hormone) levels. But our silvers already seem to know that.
When Bhupinder Singh Bagga, 63, too gets back to his three-floored house in Kanpur after an event or function (he is retired, so he is otherwise at home), he is greeted by the house dog, Caddie, who in rapid turns, first runs around unable to contain her excitement, then comes up to him and licks his hand and face, and runs back… Run-lick-repeat. With this kind of welcome on return, Bagga wishes he didn’t have to leave home in the first place.
Bagga, however, holds that you don’t bring home an animal only for the love they give you, you can also do so for the love you can give them. You understand what he means when he shares how the doggies, both indies again, came to the Bagga household. Along with Caddie, who stays more at home, there is Buddy, who is more of a visitor. Bagga describes this situation Hindi-film style: Caddie hai Ghar ki Rani (Queen of Home), Buddy hai Sadkon ka Raja (King of Roads). The two canines came in courtesy his elder son, Kamaldeep, who is vegan and works for animal welfare. Thanks to junior’s love and care, Bagga Senior, and the entire household of six (excluding the canines), came to dote on the doggies too.
Another vegan activist, Malvika Kalra, 54, based in Jammu Tawi, puts it succinctly, “Dogs, or any kind of animal companions (the PC word for ‘pets’ according to animal welfare individuals), are about one simple thing: unconditional love.” When asked to express in one word or line what their pets, oops, animal companions mean to them, we had our silvers gushing as much as the animals on seeing their silver parents. (See box story: What your pet means to you.)
Nicole Rego, veterinarian of 14 years, attests to the joy pets can infuse in seniors. She has had quite a few silver clients coming to her Mumbai clinic over the years, and has witnessed at close quarters the amiable companionship the quadrupeds offer the bipeds. They also help you overcome the melancholy of an empty nest, very common in silvers, especially in these times of nucleur families, increased urbanization, and unending aspirations.
Selma Pinto, a spry 63, lives by herself in Mysuru, along with four cats and one dog. Her children stay in Bengaluru, her husband having passed away a few years ago. Selma had even more pets earlier, but they died one by one. Apart from tending to the home animals (which actually doesn’t require so much attention, she insists), she also feeds crows and monkeys that come near her kitchen and kites that hover above her house. Empty nest? No, more like a full house, brimming with fuzzy bodies and fuzzier feelings.
Caring beyond petting
But animals, we know, have the energies, and demands, of a child. Walks and exercise, toilet training, food, doc visits, illness care… Facing some of those challenges themselves, are the silvers up to the task of tending to their four-legged companions?
Benny says, in fact, his dogs have taught him discipline. His life was quite chaotic earlier, but now, to walk, feed and care for his doggies, he needs to rise on time, take them for a walk on time, and be back from work on time. Leia, the younger one, can’t handle carbs, so he even has to make special food for her, which he does on Sundays and stores in the fridge for the week ahead. “The fridge belongs to the dogs,” he adds matter-of-factly.
Almost all seniors we spoke to said vet visits are scheduled and regular, with the vet either coming home or the animal being chaperoned to the clinic. Shilpa Mahajani provided sagely advice: “Go to a good vet. It might cost more, but the diagnosis (especially challenging for non-human beings) will be right the first time, costing you less – time, energy, effort – in the long run.”
Most also shared that they have some form of help around. The Baggas’ family of six (senior Baggas, two sons and their wives) ensures at least one of them is at home to attend to Caddie. Buddy doesn’t require much tending to, for as Bagga already said, he is more of a street soul. Deanne Menon has her three adult sons walk Laku when she’s not free, although Laku doesn’t entirely relish these walks as they literally have her on a tight leash, Deanne adds, holding Laku in an even tighter embrace. Benny’s family of four is now spread across four different cities of the world (his wife works in Thiruvananthapuram and his children recently migrated to Canada, but to places 100 kilometres apart), but he manages with a maid during his day-time absence, and is also on the lookout for a watchman of sorts for when he needs to go out-station, something he hasn’t been able to do since the doggies arrived. A matter echoed by all silvers.
Once you bring home a companion animal, taking off on your own becomes a bit challenging. Selma hasn’t really gone on a vacation ever since the menagerie of animals took up residence at her place. She has at the most gone away for a day or two, that too to nearby Bengaluru. During her absence one time, she had appointed an acquaintance to check in on the dog.
This partly also comes from the separation anxiety animals face when their human parent goes away, at least in the initial days. They can get worried and irritable, triggering off their notorious rip-and-tear sessions. The Baggas and the Mahajanis have had their share of dogs nipping and pulling at their clothes on sensing they are heading out. Benny has had his older dog, Mulan, biting his shoes, perhaps finally revealing why dogs do so. They think that the shoe is causing the person to leave, rather than the other way around, and so attack the supposed villain. Ah, the innocence, or ingenuity, of animals. (See box story: Animal behavioural traits.)
The Mitras (Kishore, 63 and Madhavi, 53), earlier based only in Mumbai but now spending more time in their house on the outskirts of Pune, recount the time they left their beloved Sweety, a Lhasa-poodle mix, in Mumbai in the care of Ashoke’s mother, for a short holiday to Mahabaleshwar. The matriarch had insisted they do so, to allow for some level of detachment between the dog and the couple: too much love isn’t good, she seemed to say. Soon after they reached the hill-station and called home to check on everyone, Ashoke’s mother told them that Sweety hadn’t eaten anything since they left. The distraught couple asked Sweety to be put on speaker-phone (ah, the innocence and ingenuity of people), and were able to pacify her to some extent. The following afternoon, they took the first bus back home.
A limiting life? None of our silver pet parents feels so. The limitless love of the animal more than makes up for it. (See box story: If pets could talk.)
Choosing with care
So, should you head out to the nearest pet shop or breeder and bring home a furry bundle of joy? The good animal doctor, Nicole, weighs in again. Get a smaller animal; they are more manageable. Also, as much as dogs are exalted for being man’s best friends, they are not easy. (Just like a high-maintenance friend, perhaps?) If your heart is really set on a dog, bring home a small breed and not one like a Labrador. Labs, young and grown-up alike, are a handful. Where silvers have enough anxieties of losing balance in a bathroom, the last thing they want is to handle a 25-kilo, four-footed, adolescent animal jumping on them in unshackled excitement. Cats are especially good pets for silvers, Nicole espouses, being both low-maintenance and high-independence. Do we hear you purring already?
All silvers we spoke to seem to be already following these to-dos. The Mahajanis and Mitras both have small dog breeds, the former Min Pins (Miniature Pinschers), the latter Spritzes. Benny, Selma, Malvika and the Baggas have indie dogs, and they swear by them. They are better suited to Indian conditions, and since they come from the outside (street), they are hardy and more independent. At the habitats of the last three, the indie dogs come and go as they please. Remember the Baggas’ sadkon ka raja, Buddy?
Vegan activist Malvika in fact has her indie dog, Razia, in her husband’s office, rather than at home. Apart from giving the reason for this, she adds further caution to – and perhaps throws a wet blanket on – keeping an animal at home. Malvika would perhaps know well. She has had four home dogs at various times in her life, all eventually passing on. The last, a Lab named Ralph, developed problems walking thanks to doing so on a concrete floor all day, which isn’t the animal’s natural terrain, she learnt. More learnings. Due to consuming another animal’s milk (the standard cow milk that most people have, and pet parents give their pets), Ralph eventually developed diabetes, which came under some control after Malvika switched to soy milk. For the same reason, Ralph started shedding hair.
If you really wish to have a pet, bring home one from a shelter, advocates Malvika, who also works for animal liberation. That way, you get to give a loving home to a homeless animal, avoid contributing to the animal breeding industry (which has too many unseen horrors to begin discussing here, she reins herself in), and of course, as she averred earlier, you get the unconditional love that perhaps only an animal can give you.
The Mitras go one step further. While they would be the first ones to recommend getting home a pet, having had all manner of species from birds to dogs at their various homes (Muscat, Mumbai, Pune) over the years, they urge you to keep in mind your situation in life. If you can’t devote all your time and effort, but still wish to experience the joy of an animal, you could visit an animal shelter off and on. Just a few hours, or even minutes, with an assortment of homeless and abandoned animals (shelters have the gamut: from dogs and cats to chicken, cows, horses and turkeys) bounding or ambling around you, can bring smiles to your face. And do wonders for those serotonin levels, may we add.
Bhupinder Bagga, who went Bollywood about the doggie situation at his home (Ghar ki rani…), does a repeat with this decision. Dog, cat, bird (although caged would be cruel), small, big, medium, it doesn’t make a difference… Aakhir pyaar sabhi ek jaise karte hain. (After all, they all love you the same way.) No doubt, Caddie would have licked him some more for that.
And when they turn silver
Now, to a question many silvers may not have considered, or perhaps don’t wish to. What if the animals you bring home to add joys and years to your sunset years end up heading into the sunset themselves? What of… silver pets?
Quite a few silvers we spoke to have had animals ailing and then passing away. Pet animals, after all, have shorter lives than humans. The silvers have seen more than a few flailing and failing pets, and it’s never easy, neither to witness their suffering nor to make the decision to put them down. Those who haven’t had an ailing pet so far said they would never euthanize their animal, as they love them too much, and also that this seems more like “a Western concept”. Those who have gone through the experience seemed more pragmatic.
The Mitras lost their darling Sweety of 18 years to a host of complications: pyometra (a disease of the uterus), diabetes, arthritis, and finally kidney failure. When the vet told them Sweety had only about five days more, and seeing her misery at close quarters, they decided to make the tough call. However, they ensured their departed daughter (they even gave her their surname) had dignity in death, burying her in Pune’s upmarket Salisbury Park, which has a pet cemetery. As if all of dog-kind knew, the street dogs of the area communed around Sweety’s grave, commiserating with the couple. Whenever the Mitras go visiting their dearly departed girl, the doggies at once gather around. No doubt about it: man’s, and dog’s, best friend. (See box story: Clicking with pets, for how you can save the dear moments with your pet for posterity.)
And what if – and this is something silvers may have thought of even less – they pass on before their beloved pets? That’s how the Dobes, Raja and Rani, had come into the Mahajanis’ lives and household: when Shipa’s father-in-law, who had the dogs originally, passed away. Initially disturbed, yet knowing somehow that their silver parent wouldn’t be returning, Raja and Rani slowly began settling into the Mahajani household, as they sensed that it was an extension of their original parent’s family.
Nicole, who has had experience with this too, says that, just as for humans, it’s important to have a succession plan: who will adopt the animals if you are no longer there and whether you have set aside money for their upkeep.
Hopefully, though, as long as you take good care of yourself and your pet, there will be no need of that. And you and your golden companion will have a long and happy life, enjoying many golden sunsets together. Cheers to that. And woofs. And meows.
The box stories…
Golden mean: What your pet means to you
Bhupinder Singh Bagga: Bachchon se zyaada (More than my kids)
Benedict Gnaniah: Turbo engines! They are so full of energy – and fill me with energy too.
Malvika Kalra: Someone you can shower your love upon, and get unconditional love from
Shilpa Mahajani: Friends – as I have a small friends’ circle
Deanne Menon: My baby doll – I do gibberish talk with her
Madhavi Mitra: My kids
Selma Pinto: De-stressors…
So, that’s why: Animal behavioural traits
We heard from a silver pet parent why dogs chew shoes: they think the shoes are making you go away, and thus try to prevent them from doing so.
Here’s why they, especially the males, seem to run away ever so often, sometimes never to return. They make the break on sensing that… a female dog is in heat. And then, the two elope, we guess.
So, it’s better to have a female animal, then? Umm, not entirely. When your female pet is in heat, who do you think is going to come outside your house or after her during your daily walks? Lots and lots of male counterparts. So, rather than having her, and yourself, slayed (with affection, aggression or both), have her spayed.
Speech is golden: If pets could talk…
If your pet got the power of human speech for one minute, what do you think they will tell you?
Bhupinder Singh Bagga: Ah, I wish for that minute too! They would say, Itnaa pyaar kyun karte ho? (Why do you love us so?)
Benedict Gnaniah: Thanks for finding me…
Malvika Kalra: You are not our best friends… (A true vegan, animal liberation response, may we say)
Shilpa Mahajani: I love you…
Deanne Menon: I love you… (She literally has a conversation with me when I return from work, lifting her rump, doing “Ooooo, ooooo.”)
Madhavi Mitra: What was ailing me (Sweety)
Selma Pinto: I love you… (the cats and dogs), I am hungry (the crows, monkeys and kites)
Clicking with pets: Through the lens of a pet photographer
Pet photographer? Is that even a job? Does it earn enough? No, that’s not us, but his friendly neighbourhood “aunties” asking Bhavesh Karia, a pet photographer based in Mumbai, whose studio has the winsome name, Pawtraits. (Find out more about Pawtraits on Facebook here.) We will ask him just that first question, and ok, a few more.
So, what does a pet photographer do?
I shoot portraits (photos) of pets (or babies, as I call them), either with their parents or of the babies alone. I shoot indoors as well as outdoors, although indoors is obviously easier. Outside, the animals have too many distractions!
How long does a shoot take, and how do you get them to pose?
It takes about an hour to three. My set-up is minimal. Posing? I typically manage with a treat or a ball. I usually check with the parent beforehand to know what will work with the baby. I try to capture the eyes of the animal, as the eyes are the windows to the soul.
Do you get any silver clients?
Not yet, as this is still a growing field. But I want to pursue it. Also, many silvers haven’t really thought of it, but it’s a great way for them to capture their special moments with their precious babies for their lifetimes – the baby’s and the parent’s.
Silvers with pets, what’s your take, especially as you have a lovely doggie yourself? (Bhavesh has a gorgeous brindle Boxer, aptly named Bella, meaning beautiful in Italian. As part of his showcase, he shares many sample photos on social media of Bella in all her brindle glory.)
Oh, yes, makes so much sense. I agree that silvers should mostly keep a low-energy animal. However, some are dog people, some are cat people. As for choosing the animal, you don’t choose the animal, they choose you…
Golden words, those.