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My dad, suffering from a memory disorder, went to live in a nursing home in the fall of 2018. Before that, he had lived in a service centre apartment since the previous fall,but could no longer manage without round-the-clock care. I had been making visits to dad with my cat Sulo for a long time - first at his home in Pispala and then in the service centre. Sulo has made the trips in a bicycle basket and on my lap in the bus. After my daughter was born, the kitty travelled in the pram and later on its lower rack as well as in the car.

My dad always loved animals, and Sulo's visits cheered him up a lot. Alzheimer's was progressing slowly but inevitably. Troubles remembering were more and more frequent, and he didn't always even remember who I, my mother or my daughter were. Sometimes he took my daughter for me. Dad lived very much in the past years, and I was still a little girl for him. Alzheimer's also made him distracted and he couldn't participate in conversation much. But as soon as Sulo appeared, dad was certain to fix his attention on the cat. He began to chat with Sulo and tried to scratch him as he walked around the wheelchair. Sulo provided the best stimulation!

Isae_rapsuttelee_Suloa_300x400. Dad and Sulo.

The nursing home and the memory disorder ward were an excellent place for dad to live. He was well taken care of, and everyday life involved a lot of humour. The ward was enthusiastic about Sulo's visits, and we went there every week. Many of the nurses like animals, and especially Anu, dad's personal caretaker, really took Sulo in. The nurses would gladly have kept Sulo there for a longer time.

At first, Sulo was harnessed, but the kitty was so anxious to go sniff around that eventually he was given free range. With his tail held high he walked the corridors, meowing on occasion or blissfully rolling and stretching on the floor. On his treks, Sulo sniffed inside and under all the cabinets, snuck into the nurses' office and coffee room to their amusement, slipped into the medicine room a couple of times, and shoved himself through cracked doors into inhabitants' rooms. A few times I had to fetch the kitty out from under the sofa of a certain lady, a particularly favoured resting place for Sulo. After inspecting the territory, Sulo would often settle on a chair in the living space, resting comfortably and watching television with the inhabitants or watching my daughter play. Sometimes dad was tired and stayed in bed in his room during our visit. Then I would set Sulo next to him, and he got to scratch the kitty's soft fur.

Kaeytaevaellae_on_kivaa_piehtaroida_300x400. Sulo at the corridor.

Sulo's visits cheered up not only dad and the nurses but also the other inhabitants. Many of them go about in a wheelchair, and I would lift Sulo higher so the grannys and grandpas could pet the kitty. One lady was always very moved when she got to hug Sulo. She had had her own cat, which had been very dear to her. Sometimes the nurses grabbed Sulo into their arms and went to show the furry visitor to the inhabitants resting in their beds.

Often we would all go for lunch in the restaurant at the bottom level of the nursing home. I pushed dad in the wheelchair and Sulo led, strutting ahead in his leash, tail high up of course. In the restaurant, Sulo laid down near the table. He provoked much admiration and merriment there, as well. Many inhabitants and visitors came to chat, and Sulo enjoyed the attention and the pets. At times, Sulo would have rather joined a neighbouring table than spend time with the family.

Sulo,_hoitajien_lellikki_300x400 Sulo and nurses.

The Covid era changed visiting, and unfortunately we couldn't get to the ward or the restaurant any longer. After the worst phase, a large meeting room was set up at the bottom level of the nursing home, where family members could book visiting hours. Sulo liked it there very well, too. The room was spacious and had plenty of interesting shelves and levels to explore. The arm chairs were good to rest or climb on the backrests, and after getting tired of exploring, Sulo took a nap in the bookshelf next to the hymnals. On our way out, Sulo always made new friends, when inhabitants with their walkers in the corridor would stop for a chat upon seeing a cat. Most of the time, Sulo was taken for a dog, since a cat on a leash is such an unusual sight.

As last spring progressed, meetings were fortunately again allowed on the ward, but only in the inhabitants' own rooms. Sulo had to be leashed, as otherwise the kitty would've gone who knows where, and I after him. Sulo was accustomed to wandering all over, so obviously he was upset about being tied down. He stood on call at the end of the leash by the door, watched the walker traffic in the corridor, and occasionally protested to his captivity by meowing. I hoped the Covid era would subside and we could roam freely again.

Tapaamishuoneessa_porukalla_300x400 Sulo at visiting room.

Summer came, and Midsummer celebrations were beginning. We had planned to visit dad all together on Midsummer day. Dad had lacked appetite for some days already, but I hadn't thought it to be very serious. We had seen each other only a few days ago, and then dad could almost finish a bowl of soup with my assistance. In the evening of Midsummer eve the nursing home called me. Dad had been unconscious all afternoon, and the nurse recommended I come there. Dad was only intermittently awake and even tried to say something, but it was difficult. I spent the whole evening with dad and stayed the night on a mattress next to the bed. In the morning there was some hope: maybe the antibiotic and additional oxygen would help. Thanks to the painkillers, the pains at least were gone. I had to go home during the forenoon. Before leaving I tapped dad on the shoulder and told him I'd come see him in the afternoon with mom, my daughter and Sulo. That visit never happened.

I was at home cooking lunch when the nurse called with the sad news. Dad had died. He had simply stopped breathing. We cried together on the phone. Everything had happened so quickly and suddenly in the end. The sun was shining outside, and the birch leaves glowed bright green. Midsummer was being celebrated with blue and white flags flying. Dad's last day was as beautiful and dignified as could be wished.

Dad was 91 when he died. He achieved a long life, which comforts me in my mourning. But I still immensely miss dad and our fun visits with Sulo. A huge chunk is missing from everyday life. I feel strange not going for our weekly visit. I also cried as I was picking the photos for this story. I want to visit dad's ward with Sulo someday and take this Birma magazine as a keepsake for the wonderful caretakers of the nursing home.

A person's life is valuable in spite of a memory disorder, and should be treasured till the end. That a person doesn't remember doesn't mean they don't exist or aren't worth talking to or kept as a part of your own everyday life. The life of someone with a memory disorder is different from a healthy person's, but it isn't necessarily miserable or lousy. I personally feel that dad had a good life even in his last years.

I think it would be great if many more owners of gentle and brave pets would take their pets into nursing homes. Animals have a huge capacity to create an atmosphere of love, warmth, gentleness and humour, and to evoke happy memories. Sulo left sweet paw prints on the corridors of Tammenlehvä as well as in the hearts of my dad, the caretakers and the inhabitants.


Text & photos: Katja Villemonteix

Sulo's human mummy


The article was originally published in the magazine for members of Saint Birman's Cat in Finland 04/2021

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