Making Rounds with Oscar
Tastes come and go, rise and wane. For today, at least, it seems that animal stories are all the rage. We probably have Marley and his amazing success to blame. So it is not surprising that, just a month into this project, I’ve come across the story of an animal. This time it is the story of Oscar, a cat with a strange gift.
Oscar lives in Steere House in Providence, Rhode Island. Steere House is a nursing home with a large ward for patients with dementia. Oscar is one of several animals who lives in the home, providing comfort and companionship to the residents. But Oscar is unique in that he seems to always be present when a patient is in the final hours of life. Author David Dosa, a geriatrician who works at the home, plays the role of the guy who is ambivalent toward animals, but ready to be convinced. Much of the book proceeds through a long series of interviews with family members of former patients, asking them about their experience with Oscar. Time and time again he hears that Oscar was there when a person passed away.
And that’s about it. Dosa writes in narrative fashion with lots of detailed conversations. Seeing as many of these conversations were utterly inconsequential and seeing as they happened several years ago, it’s quite clear that these bits of dialog are “could-be-true” more than hard fact. The dialog is often stilted, neither realistic nor high in literary quality. It is a flaw, though not a fatal one.
More interesting and more consequential than Dosa’s musings about a cat (I’m no fan of felines or most other pets, for that) are his descriptions of end-of-life care. Culturally, we have a lot of thinking to do about caring for those who are near-death, and especially so as our population ages. So often today we leave people almost indefinitely suspended between life and death, purposelessly staving off the inevitable. Dosa sees this struggle every day. Though he does little to suggest a better way forward, he does provide many useful case studies where we see the issues up close and personal.
Also useful are his descriptions of men and women suffering from dementia. As he describes such people he humanizes them, giving a face to what is often abstract. Many of the stories are heartbreaking (such as the man who entered his wife’s room to celebrate their anniversary, only to have her scream and slap him, having forgotten who he was; the man walked away and never returned). Having dealt with Alzheimer’s in my own family, I can attest to its devastating effects. The benefit I found in this book was in thinking about people like my grandfather who was, at the time of his death, just a shadow of the man he had been in life.
As for the cat, well, who knows? Dosa proposes that he may smell something that warns him of the onset of death. Maybe, perversely, he enjoys this scent and goes to curl up with the dying patients for his own satisfaction more than their comfort. Either way, Oscar is no more than a rather uninteresting character in an largely unremarkable book. I see little to recommend it.
Verdict: Read it if you really, really like cats (or geriatricians).