Lessons From My Cat
Updated: Mar 25
I recently gained insight about Alzheimer’s from my cat. Yes, my cat Zipper. He’s a big orange cat without a tail, and he’s about 12 years old. He was a present for my daughter when she turned 10.
Zipper has lived most of his life in our house. He used to roam outside and climb the walls and meet with other cats, but for the past six years, he’s been house-bound due to his girth and his diabetes. Zipper is an essential part of our lives and as we prepared for our house renovations, we also made plans to move him with us to my dad’s house.
There is no way I could have explained to Zipper what was about to happen to him. He certainly sensed changes in our house as we wrapped and boxed all of our possessions; but moving to a different location was definitely beyond his understanding.
I guess I could have brought him to visit my dad’s house before the move so that he could check out his new location. For a cat with heightened sense of smell, this might have been a good idea. Hindsight, sadly, is 20/20. Instead, Zipper’s fear was palpable as we left our house and then set him down on my dad’s porch.
We’d set up his familiar bed and food in the shed, but when I went to check on him in the morning, he had crawled into the most hidden corner of the shed he could find, which is no small feat for such a big cat. His eyes were wide with fear.
I sat in the sunshine and coaxed him out with treats and attention. I sat there long enough for him to feel comfortable exploring his new digs. He seemed to relax as the day wore on. I checked on him several times more and found him again backed into the corner of the shed, staring at me forlornly.
Day two was better than day one. There were plants to smell, enough room to pad around, a few structures to explore. I’m assuming that he will become comfortable here quickly. And yet I sensed his confusion and fear so completely mainly because I had caused it.
Now imagine moving someone with Alzheimer’s from one location to another. You can talk about the move until you’re blue in the face, describing and cajoling as the house is packed up around them. But it won’t do any good. Perhaps you can even bring them to see their new home, but they will probably not retain any memory of that.
When we moved Mom to Beer Sheva, she had lost her connections to things and possessions, but I remember about five years ago, when she was in a more mild stage of the disease, whatever item we tried to remove from the house—for example, clothes she hadn’t worn in decades—she’d accuse me of stealing.
I also didn’t need to bring Mom to visit her new home as it was a stone’s throw from mine, a place she’d visited literally hundreds of times. Unfortunately, that made no difference in her ultimate confusion.
Before the move, Mom had stood in the middle of her living room and told me in all seriousness that she needed to go home. “I live in a place just like this,” she had said, “but this is not my home.”
What a crazy idea to fathom. It is hard to comprehend how someone could be as lost in their own present as to think that their home is not their home.
The very concept of home was now foreign to Mom. And if I had to guess what defined “home” for her, I’d say it was her childhood home in England where she grew up with her parents and sister.
Unlike Zipper the very fat cat, Mom never adjusted to leaving her home of 23 years. She was never really able to relax and was constantly anxious about finding the bathroom or searching for the non-existent second story. She’d walk around the house pushing on walls looking for a hidden door to the stairs.
Within a year of becoming my neighbor, we moved Mom again, this time to a memory care facility. That move, coming on the heels of the emotional turmoil of the first one, produced great fear and anxiety in Mom. We were told not to visit for the first two weeks. I could imagine her rushing around trying to get out and get “home.” I’m pretty sure that that experience had residual repercussions in Mom’s deterioration and in the way she spoke about—and to some extent still speaks about—wanting to “get out of this place.” The guilt I felt at having been party to the decision to move Mom to her current institution has weighed on me every day since.
Rationally, I know it was the right outcome to an increasingly untenable existence for both my parents. Emotionally, well, that’s a different story.
Moving Zipper reminded me how someone with Alzheimer’s might react to a planned upheaval. Though he is only a cat, I am making the effort to ease him in to his new surroundings. When I visit Mom, I try to bring as much laughter and sunshine as I can to our moments together. It is a small compensation for not being able to bring her home.
Happy 79th birthday, Mom. I know you don’t remember it’s your birthday, or even how old you are. You probably don’t remember I’m your daughter, either. But I remember these things, and so I baked you a cake. I’m baking in your kitchen with your utensils. It is strange to come face-to-face with measuring cups, spatulas, and baking pans I remember from my childhood, things you haven’t touched in years now, because baking is a skill that is totally beyond your capabilities. Eating cake, though, is still something that’s fun to do. So while the reason may be hidden from you, the sweetness of this chocolate cake should remain with you long enough to sweeten your present. I love you!
Deep Dark Chocolate Cake
The secret to this recipe is the extra liquid that is mixed in at the end. This cake comes out moist every time I make it. Though the number of ingredients may seem imposing, this is a cake that works even if you “schittareyn,” as my grandmother would say. That’s Yiddish for pour it all in together and mix it up.
2 cups flour
1½ cups sugar
1 cup cocoa
1½ tsp baking powder
1½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup Canola oil
1 cup milk or milk substitute
1 cup hot water
1 cup chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp water
1 cup strawberry jam, softened
Measure dry ingredients into a bowl and mix. Add oil, vanilla, eggs and cup of milk (or milk substitute—I like to use ½ cup water and ½ cup orange juice or chocolate almond milk) and continue mixing batter. Add the hot water last and slowly work it into the batter. Pour into two 6” / 15 cm greased pans and bake at 350° F / 180° C for 30 to 35 minutes. Place bottom layer cake pan-side up on a plate and carefully spread jam (warmed in microwave for about 40 seconds) leaving about a ¾” space at the edge. Place second layer cake on top, pan-side down. In a microwave-safe measuring cup, measure chips, water and vanilla. Heat on high for 30 seconds. If needed, stir and repeat until chips are melted. Spread over cooling cake.