Archive for the ‘Animal Assisted Therapy’ Category
Was out for a walk last night, and realized that I’d lost four pets in the past year and a half. Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that I had a cat hit by a car just over a year ago. (This was Chester.) Then, after the separation, Danielle decided to keep our three other cats (Alice, Ben, and Rosie). She had offered to let me take Alice, who I absolutely adored — Alice was a chubby grey and white cat with an amazingly sweet disposition — but Alice was best friends with Ben, and I couldn’t imagine separating them. So Alice stayed in Newfoundland, and I came back to Toronto with just my 16 year old cat, Hodgie.
I’m reviewing all of these animal comings-and-goings because I’m finding myself really missing animal companionship. I’ve started surfing websites (there are a lot of them in Toronto) about animal fostering, and I have fantasies about adopting a greyhound. I can’t, of course, actually do this, becuase I don’t know the first thing about domesticating a racetrack animal, and (more concretely) I don’t have a fenced yard.
But a lot of my attention lately is on animals. I notice dogs in the park; I notice cats sleeping on porches. I long for animal companionship as a way of responding to feelings of isolation. Hodge is a great cat — he’s incredibly loyal, and he’s been a trooper through all of these moves and changes — but he’s quite elderly, and spends a lot of time asleep.
So I might actually do it. I might foster a kitten. I think that, following major separation, major move, and major disruption, a little kitten might be just the ticket. Hodgie won’t like it, but he doesn’t get to make all the decisions in this house. I’ll write again with an update: there might be another new kitten in the house sooner rather than later….
Hello fellow LonelyTheBook friends. I’ve been reading a lot these days about environmental psychology–the impact of place on our thoughts and feelings. The subject appeals to me because the move from St. John’s to Toronto has signalled major “environmental” changes. There’s no ocean here, of course, but Toronto is also hotter, brighter, louder, and much more quickly paced.
There’s a lot in the enviro psych literature about depression and mania, but not a word about loneliness. This strikes me as an oversight. I know that when I was living near the ocean in St. John’s, I simply felt less lonely. This was the case even though I was objectively alone most days. But on those days I could walk through big parks, or go hiking on sea-side cliffs, or just sit on the deck and smell the fresh ocean air.
I wonder if part of loneliness can be seen as a failure to connect not just to other people but to the world around us. I know that what I “miss” in Toronto is not just the close companionship that Danielle used to provide but the sense of being woven into a much larger, greener (and bluer) fabric. There are simply fewer natural prompts here to make me feel good and whole, fewer sights to make me marvel, fewer miles for me to walk.
The irony, of course, is that the ocean-side hikes I loved so much in Newfoundland were entirely de-populated. I could walk for an hour and see no one. Whereas here, where my loneliness is much more profound, I am rarely objectively “alone.” There are crowds on the street, on subways and buses. But I’ve lost a sense of natural presence that made the world feel closer and more comforting. Without the natural world, I’m doubly lonely, and that’s a shame: it’s just one more thing to miss.
Again, thanks to all for the messages and the support — it really does make a difference. I am now landed in Toronto and am apartment hunting. Almost found a place this week — it had a nice office where I could have set up Lonely HQ — but then the landlord turned to me and said, “No pets.”
Well, that was a surprise! It’s actually illegal in Ontario to ban pets from a building. There was a famous case a few years back (the “Fluffy” decision), where the Court of Appeal found that pets were critical to many people’s mental health, and that there was no reason to prohibit them except in cases of disruption or risk.
But so many landlords are banning pets. What’s a person with a *strong* predisposition to loneliness to do? Many people have asked about my pet status. Post breakup, Danielle kept the three younger cats, and I flew to Toronto with my 16 year old cat, Hodge Podge. The landlord I was speaking to this week suggested that all I needed to do was put Hodge down — then my rental problems would be solved!
I realize I’m editorializing here, but the no pet thing is seriously stressing me out. So many of you have sent me such lovely notes about how your pets have helped with loneliness — how they’re there at the end of the day, how there’s another “heartbeat” in the house, how cats cuddle and make the bed feel cozier. And I don’t want to lose that. As a singleton with no kids, I need other creatures in the house.
So my apartment hunt just got a lot more complicated, but I know myself and my risk of loneliness too well to back down on the need for pets. Hodge & I will find a place, I’m sure. I just wish people were a little more aware of the important roles animals serve in a life — I’m not seeing a lot of that right now.
Saw an article recently about a project aimed a creating robots for the lonely. I’m not making this up! On one hand, the notion that someone is taking loneliness seriously and thinking of responses to it is encouraging. But, a robot?
I had the opportunity, a few years ago, to interview Dr. Aaron Katcher, an American psychiatrist who’s been at the forefront of developing animal-assisted therapy techniques. This was right when little robots were being marketed as possible helpers and companions for the elderly. I asked Katcher what he thought about this development, and he was horrified. He described it as pushing the aged and the sick “into the matrix,” away from the life-giving people, animals, and natural settings we all need.
This is how I feel about the idea of developing robots for the lonely. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong! Lonely people need other people (and pets!). To think that we can substitute technology for human warmth is a bit terrifying. If someone had given me a robot during the years of my most intense loneliness, I would have thrown it across the room. I wanted human companionship, not technology.
If any lonely people out there would entertain the notion of interacting with a robot, let me know. Right now, I’m not sure where the researchers will get their experimental lonely subjects. I can’t imagine anyone signing up for such a loneliness “cure.” Would you?
A quick post to say that…there is a new kitten in the house! It seems a bit soon after the death of Chester, but the kitten was homeless, adorable, and in need of care (he has some health issues). If I had a digital camera, I’d post a photo, but, since I am camera-less, I will simply say that Ben is a small, somewhat fluffy, black and brown tabby, with lovely dark brown paws. I still miss Chester, but Ben is doing some simple heart-mending just by being his own sweet self.
Many thanks to everyone who wrote in about the loss of Chester. It’s strange to not have him in the house. I keep thinking I see him every time I turn a corner. He was a very special little cat. I knew it when he was alive, and I feel the loss very acutely now.
And yes, to those of you who said my cats should be indoors cats: I’ve learned my lesson. My three remaining cats are indoor cats from now on. (They’re not happy about this, but they will learn to live with it.)
Yesterday was not a great day. Was working upstairs in the mid-afternoon when I heard someone beating at the front door. Ran downstairs and opened the door to find my neighbor crouched over the body of my youngest cat, Chester. He’d been hit by a car and died more or less instantly, in front of my neighbor’s house. She’d carried the body over, and laid it on my front step. We both just crouched there, on either side of him, and cried.
There were things to do: towels to cover the body, the finding of a box, the phone call to Animal Services. And through it all, an incredible sadness and grief. He was such a great little guy. The house feels so empty without him. He was so full of life, and playful, and inexhaustibly loving. I keep moving through the house today, expecting to see him, but of course he is gone.
The loss of Chester makes me think about loneliness. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that some (not all) lonely people rely on their pets, and make closer ties with them, than nonlonely people do. I just think that the lonely need animals more than the nonlonely.
I think of the studies saying that reliance on a pet when lonely or isolated is “anthropomorphism”: ie., the belief that the animal is in some way a person. But Chester wasn’t a person. He was more trusting, more open, sweeter. He was a great friend to me, and I’m sad to see him go.
Headed out to the ocean this weekend to deal with my social loneliness. The Atlantic is about a ten minute drive away: I like to go to a big park with a 150 year old lighthouse and views clear to Ireland. The sun was bright, the waves were huge, and the day was fresh.
At first, I didn’t feel a sense of connection, but as I walked, and felt my step bounce against the heather, and thought of the whales that would soon be in the waters all around me, I began to feel more connected.
In Lonely, I talk about “biophilia,” which is the notion that human life is intricately related to the life all around us — the idea is that we don’t exist in silos, but are rather deeply connected to the world we live in. If biophilia is true (and I think it is), then we can’t hurt the world around us without being hurt ourselves. As species die out, or become dangerously rare, we’ll begin to feel the gaps in our own lives.
And staring out at the Atlantic this weekend, and loving the sense of being part of something, I had to think about the BP oil spill in the Gulf. It’s essentially the same body of water — though I’m a lot further north. I couldn’t help but think that the damage that’s being done to the Gulf — otters! sea turtles! nesting birds! — really affects us all. When I tried to express this idea to a newspaper editor, he said I had no proof, but I could feel the proof in my own body: there was an empty feeling inside me when I thought about all the species affected by the spill.
So the trip to the shore was a mixed blessing. The ocean was beautiful, but it inevitably got me thinking about the spill, and its effects. Ultimately, I’d like us to arrive at a point where it’s normal to talk about loneliness in terms of our relationship with the natural world. This shouldn’t be seen as some off-beat, wacky idea. It’s not. Deep down, I think we are connected to the world around us, and damage to that world will hurt us in ways we might not expect.
Just got a call from the animal rescue group I volunteer with, asking me to transport cats through town tomorrow (it’s a long story). My instinct was to say no. Not because of the cats (I know I’ll love them at first sight), but because of all the people involved: the foster parents, the adoptive parents, the rescue staff.
So I’m sitting on the sofa, talking on the phone with the rescue co-ordinator, and she’s saying, “Can you take the cats?” And I’m thinking that it would be very easy to make up an excuse and say no. But I said yes. And I said yes because every time I volunteer with animals (walking, transporting), I find people easier to deal with. I know that there are studies on this — in fact, the sense of trust and ease that animals trigger is one of the reasons your therapist has a cat wandering through her home office.
I’ll update this tomorrow, but I think I’m going to be happy to have done the volunteer work. I am predicting a greater sense of connection with people post transporting cats. I’m going to try to monitor my reaction and report back. More to follow….
Update: Two days later. The volunteer work did make me feel slightly more connected, but I think the animals themselves were too absent from the equation. Since I was driving them across town, they were in carriers, and I didn’t “connect” with them. However, it was nice to speak to the adoptive pet parents. All in all, a mildly positive experience.
Just back from the park, and–as I was out–I was thinking about what I might call my new loneliness “scale.” It involves dogs. Bear with me here — it’s not as nutty as it sounds.
I notice that my loneliness is “correlated” with my longing for a canine companion. When my social needs are being met, I can pat a dog and move on. But when I’m feeling alone, and see a dog, I have to have it. This feeling has caused problems. I’ve had two foster dogs through the house, and neither has worked out. How could they? I have four cats–the oldest one being especially intolerant of anything that barks.
But my loneliness was crying out for a dog. (And don’t worry, both of those foster dogs ended up with good adoptive homes.) I think my new loneliness scale would go something like this.
Imagine you see a dog in the park. You: A) say hello to the owner and pass by, B) ignore the owner and begin to pat the dog, or C) wait til owner isn’t looking and snatch the dog away forever!
If your answer is “C”, that probably indicates high loneliness. I mean, I think it indicates it reliably. We intuitively recognize that animals can be real companions, and loneliness will invariably (if we’re “pet people”) heighten our need for animal companionship.
What I find most interesting in all of this was that, when I was at the park, I wasn’t interested in the owners. I had no desire to strike up conversations. My attention was focused on the dogs. That’s a little peculiar, no? I mean, I should be trying to spark up conversations with people. But all I wanted was to grab a huge Lab and run!