Mr Pink: A vignette on labour and love within interspecies care relations in later life

In this 7 minute video, Professor Louise Locock from the University of Aberdeen discusses connections between love, labour, vulnerability and biographical disruption within interspecies relations of caring in later life. A transcript of the discussion is provided below.

Transcript

A vignette on love, labour, vulnerability and biographical disruption within interspecies care in later life.

Hi, I’m Louise Locock. OK, so first off, a confession, this paper is probably more informed by my personal experience of living with an aging Siamese cat than it is by theory. And there he is in the background. So it feels as if I’m trying to bridge two very different halves of myself, a mother, wife and cat lover on the one hand and on the other, an academic specializing in personal experience of illness. And I’ve always been a bit suspicious of autoethnography.

Leaving that aside, a running theme in my research into illness experiences has been the concepts of biographical disruption, first coined by Mike Bury and loss of self from the work of Kathy Charmaz. So both ideas speak to the way in which a human diagnosis of serious illness, whether acute or long term, can disrupt someone’s identity and their expected path through life. These ideas have been challenged and expanded to include concepts such as biographical flow and biographical continuity, in which illness is perceived as a normal, expected part of life, particularly in old age, or is just another difficulty to be absorbed alongside other, more salient characteristics such as poverty or discrimination.

So biographical disruption can ripple out to other family members. Aasbo, et al described the challenge of trying to maintain a sense of ‘biographical we’ when caring for a partner with the sense of, with a serious illness. But how might illness and disruption play out when the other member of the relationship is not another person, your partner, but an animal? So what I’d like to bring to the discussion is some reflections on the interrelationship between human illness, and aging and animal illness and aging.

So that prompts a number of thoughts for me. What is it like to be an ill, aging person, caring for an aging dog or cat? How do you support each other, but are you potentially also a care burden to each other? How does the human see their own physical and mental decline mirrored in the animal? Can we conceive of the animal experiencing biographical disruption, even if it’s inevitably the human who’s narrating the animal’s biography and we can’t directly access that? What happens when cognitive impairment disrupts the bonds between animal and human, or a change in living arrangements is required, which means one or other has to go somewhere else? How far do animal and person have a joint biography, if we can say that, and how far does it start to disintegrate or hang together as bodies and minds fail? And finally, dealing with the realization that this is potentially the last pet or, even more finally seeing the death of the last pet as part of one’s own mortality trajectory.

So returning to the personal, I’ll just reflect a bit on the changing relationship with my old cat, Mr. Pink, who was also known as Dog. He’s one of many cats I’ve owned, but one with whom I had a particularly intense bond. He was originally one of four family cats, young, healthy, easy to care for. But as our children grew, so the cats aged, the health problems piled up, we had chronic pain, we had stroke, we had kidney disease. And I note I’m saying ‘we’ there. And one by one, the cats left us. So there came a time when the house was almost empty. We had three cats buried in the garden, our sons off at university and only Mr Pink was left. Mr. Pink, who was a Siamese, who thought he was human, who wanted to be with me and talk to me, loudly, every waking minute and to sleep with me all night long. He was clever, inquiring, demanding, a clown, a friend.

And then came the disaster of a near-fatal episode of kidney disease; we were abroad at the time, which made it even worse. He was kept alive by intravenous fluids for eight days and eventually stabilized. But he remained dependent on being given daily subcutaneous fluid injections to hydrate him. When we came back from our trip abroad, we thought we had a few months with him at most. In the end, he survived nearly three years, and we had long periods of stability, interspersed with small declines and occasional crises. The daily fluid injections crept up to twice daily, then three times, and there were more medications and more health problems, very undignified constipation and incontinence towards the end. And adjusting to each of those new declines and incorporating each new intervention into our lives was a constant practical and emotional process.

My funny friend had become a burden, to himself and to me. And somewhere I crossed the line from love to labour. Did we judge that tipping point between survival and welfare right? We’ll never know. It’s possible I clung onto him too long, as the last link to my young, noisy family in what was now a silent house. And was he, in fact, caring for me, whether he wanted to or not?

Perhaps in such interspecies relationships, there’s a mutual shifting exchange of love and labour, in which decline and dependency on both parts may be asynchronous or in which both partners may mirror each other’s changing life and aging. And of course, negotiating this relationship is always under the shadow, unlike inter-human relationships, of the knowledge that one party has the power and responsibility to end the other one’s life.  Or seek to prolong it.

Further Reading:

Bury, M. (1982), Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociology of Health & Illness, 4: 167-182. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.ep11339939

Charmaz, K. (1983), Loss of self: a fundamental form of suffering in the chronically ill. Sociology of Health & Illness, 5: 168-195. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.ep10491512

Locock, L. (2017). Labour and love for Mr Pink Veterinary Record 181, 518. https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/181/19/518