Empty Nester Loneliness:

There’s a Furry Answer

by Jean S. Barto

A Black Hole
A load of concrete might fill the hole left in the house after the kids leave. Seventy-six trombones and fifty drummers might liven up the deadly stillness. And then there are old Seinfeld reruns to provide a few laughs. But will this fill the emptiness?

Maybe you never heard the floorboards creak or the clock tick because a CD was blaring out of one room and a voice was calling from the next room to “shut that thing up so I can talk on the cell!” This, coupled with young friends ringing the doorbell, then racing upstairs, calling loudly all the way, while slamming the door behind them. All this comes with a full house. Now the creeping fog of silence fills the air. What will offer the warmth and fullness a caring individual provides?

Search and Rescue
A woman who had just lost her husband read a plea in a church bulletin for a home for a desperately needy cat. The cat, although many years the from kitten stage, had been bullied by two other cats so unmercifully that she lost all her teeth except her fangs. This was an opportunity for that lonely woman to nurture a sad cat, and in doing so, fill her life with the happiness that helping another being brings, and the contentment both she and this little foot warmer needed.

Another couple packed their child off to college and then couldn’t stand the quiet. The next week, they brought home two eight-week-old kittens from a local shelter. The family room became the little felines’ home, complete with food and water bowls, the litter box, and a cozy bed. The doors were barricaded and all was secure—or was it? Rolling, tumbling, and chasing each other kept the kittens busy for about a day and half.

Then the exploring started. One night the barricade was nudged over and an escape route found. More intense fortifications were made. The family room was an add-on beyond the kitchen, so the former outside window in the kitchen became a pass-through to the family room. Great idea! The kittens thought so, too. They climbed on a chair, onto a table in their family room apartment, then marched through the kitchen window. Next morning, mom and pop opened their bedroom door, and guess who was sitting outside. How could anyone do anything but laugh? Animals are the Charlie Chaplins, Bob Newharts, and Hawkeye Pierces of the world. We all need that.

Filling the Gap—Yours and Theirs
The local SPCAs and rescue shelters might have the answer for many people. Older unwanted dogs and cats share the hollow feelings of empty nesters. They lack a close connection with another being, animal or human. And the eyes of the little kittens and puppies just dropped by the side of the road or brought to a shelter show their confusion and loneliness. What a perfect equation: a nest from which the young people have flown + a deserted animal. The sum of this equation = companionship, bringing happiness to both you and your new pet.

People can work on a crossword puzzle or a “difficult” sudoku to fill their time. A dog or cat can’t, but a sudoku doesn’t snuggle on your lap. Often, a pet even surpasses beloved family members in other ways. Is there a family on earth that hasn’t argued? That’s doubtful. Is there a family member that hasn’t failed to run to the door at the end of the workday to welcome the returning wage earner? That’s probable. Fortunately, language is not a dog or cat’s capability.

When the wage earner returns to the empty house, the beloved pet will be a “nose-to-the-door” welcoming committee. Most pets are lap-snugglers—whether Yorkie, Labrador retriever, or alley cat—while the alpha person is watching the news on TV. And that friend doesn’t run for the hills when household duties need to be performed, but instead follows devotedly.

Creative Pet Ventures
Sometimes, though, allergies, jobs that require travel, and home situations that prohibit housing an animal can be obstacles to adopting a pet. One friend found a creative solution for her loneliness: She walks a dog for an elderly neighbor who is now housebound. The neighbor can let her dog, Misty, go out in the fenced yard but is no longer able to take her for a nice long walk. What tremendous pleasure this friend derives not only from helping a neighbor in need, but also from the ecstatic greeting Misty gives her.

Letting a pet give others pleasure is rewarding, too. Dogs are used in some libraries to help children with reading difficulties. Teachers take the children to the library for the children to read to a dog or rabbit or whatever. Reading to a nonjudgmental animal, instead of to a teacher or parent, gives the children much needed confidence and practice. Nursing homes and hospitals often open their doors to and find benefit in visits from a dog or cat. The patients’ smiles and enthusiastic responses reward the owner. Although there is a certain protocol that must be followed in preparing an animal for this kind of service, the benefits to the owners are manyfold. Doing for others is its own fulfilling reward. And the warm vehicle can be an animal ….Yours.

So—what is the answer to the loneliness, the enveloping quiet in the house, the change in the day’s order, the missing greeting at the door? What will give us the love, companionship, and laughs we all need?

A pet!

Jean S. Barto was raised in New York City and earned a degree in fine arts from Connecticut College. She has taught art in elementary and middle school and worked as an interior designer. Jean served as a college registrar and also taught in a college interior design department. She even has a Pennsylvania real estate license! An avid animal lover, in 2006 Jean published Furry Tales: Fins, Feathers and Whatever, a compilation of animal tales. Convinced that everyone has an interesting story to tell, Jean and friend Doris Mackenzie collected memories from more than 100 contributors, which culminated in Humor, Heartache and Harrowing Tales (also 2006). Jean has completed coursework with the Institute for Children’s Literature. Her “project in the wings” is a collection of short stories, the fruit of many years’ work. Jean enjoys a close relationship with her two children and three grandchildren.

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