Saturday, April 28, 2012

Assistance Dogs, For When Mere Obedience is Not Enough

Dogs made the spectacularly successful decision to partner up with humans so long ago we have only myths and legends to describe the origins of this ancient bond. They now live with us in every region of the globe. Some earn their way through hard and dangerous work, sniffing out bombs or guarding livestock. Others win our affection through their sheer charisma, and are awarded lifetime benefits including lodging, board and a decent medical package.

They depend on us, and are great students of the human race, exquisitely attuned and responsive to the small and unconscious signals that we send. In some ways they know us better than we know ourselves. It's a survival skill that works both to their advantage, and to ours.

The phenomenal canine ability to read humans has opened the way for a new role for dogs as service animals for people with disabilities. This afternoon I got to watch a magnificent coppery-coated Golden Retriever named Stan (above) show what he could do. Drop your pencil? Stan will pick it up and put it in your hand. TV remote out of reach? Stan is all over that. He'll find it and deliver it to where you sit. Your change fell in the snow? Stan can recover it, and will drop it in a bucket for you. Dogs are used to assist everyone from MS patients to victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whom they will awaken from a nightmare. All of which is impressive, but we ask of them even more demanding behavior. We ask them to use their judgement to challenge us when we are headed for trouble.
These dogs are reared for "intelligent disobedience" They know us so well that they will resist and even obstruct us when we are unaware of imminent harm. According to the trainers from Alaska Assistance Dogs, canines can tell when a diabetic is experiencing dangerous levels of sugar in the bloodstream and will insist that their charge pay attention to the problem. A friend in Kenai who suffers from Parkinson's told me that her assistance dog can sense when she has a fall coming and will do its best to dissuade her from walking. She reports that when she doesn't pay heed she soon regrets it when down she goes.

This of course requires the human involved to pay attention, evaluate the situation, and decide whether the dog has a point. Then admit that Fido is right and that they are wrong. Ouch.

Are dogs really that smart? Smarter at times than humans? Let me answer that question with a question. When was the last time when Timmy had to save Lassie from falling down a well?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Parkinson's and creativity: What Choice do You Have?

Not long ago there was a burst of items on the Web reporting a link between the start of dopamine therapy for Parkinon's Disease and a flowering of creative energy. This interested me because of the "creative roll" that I have been on since my diagnosis ten years ago.

As this streak continued to unfold I began to wonder if it was an artifact of the treatment. If so, was the treatment merely bringing me up to my baseline creativity, or was I being "artificially enhanced", like a ballplayer hopped up on steroids? I worried and wondered for awhile, and then it hit me: What difference does it make? What is important is what you can and do accomplish. The other stuff just isn't measurable.

Parkinson's is at work in our bodies long before the first tremor betrays its presence. When that first tremor does show, it means that 70-80% of the dopamine-brewing cells in your substantia nigra are no longer in the dopamine manufacturing biz. The fact that one can skate so long with such impairment is truly amazing, and I have grown to find it comforting. But again I pondered, what had Parkinson's stolen from me before we caught it red-handed? It is the inverse of the first question, and just as useless to worry over.

Parkinson's Disease itself is fiendishly creative. It reshapes personalities, habits and even physical characteristics. It demands a creative response. One has to rethink how life can be approached, from the simple act of walking to the complexity of spousal relationships. And because Parkinson's Disease is always on the move, we must stay on the alert for new ways to cope as old strategies lose their efficacy. As our capabilities diminish, we must incorporate new ideas of who we are into our notions of ourselves.

This is a form of creativity that can't be measured in the number of drawings executed or the number of sonnets written. It is the process of building meaning from the pile of jackstraws that we become following the diagnosis of PD.  It entails loss and bereavement. It's hard to accept. But to go on, you have to re-imagine yourself in ways you never would have without the challenge of this disease. This is the creativity demanded of all of us who have Parkinson's Disease. So far, it remains unmeasured.