The aromatherapy scents of flowers and herbs surround a Rhode Island grandmother as she lays in her bed at a nursing home. It’s the final hour of her life. Her son looks on silently. The only noise is the soft purr of a furry, gray-and-brown spotted cat curled up next to the woman, Marion McCullough. The cat knows better than anyone that she will be taking her last breath soon.
The feline holding this vigil is Oscar, the resident cat in the dementia ward of Steere House nursing home in Providence, R.I. He moved into the facility in 2005 when he was just a kitten. Six months later, nurses and staff began to notice Oscar’s uncanny ability.
While generally not very affectionate, Oscar seems to know when patients are near death. He curls up next to them, remaining there until they pass. The first time this happened, the patient was Marion McCullough. Since then, Oscar has sat in vigil with nearly 50 patients. Now, when he nestles into a patient’s bed, the staff nurses take the opportunity to call family and friends and tell them that their loved one’s time is soon coming to an end, giving them a chance to say goodbye.
David Dosa (GSPH ’03), a geriatrician and health services researcher at Brown University, has worked in the home since 2003. A head nurse on the dementia ward told him about the cat’s prescience. Initially, Dosa was skeptical about the cat’s behavior, but he also was intrigued.
His curiosity led to his book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat (Hyperion), in which he interviews the caregivers of those who passed on with Oscar beside them.
During his career, Dosa became well versed in the disease of dementia but, he says, he never related fully to its devastation until his own mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia while he was writing the book. “You can only truly understand when you’ve experienced it firsthand,” Dosa says. His book is an exploration of that understanding. He surveys all aspects of caring for someone with dementia—someone who, as he describes it, is “unlearning life” and reverting back to infancy. Roles are reversed. Children become the parents.
Dosa reveals, too, that caregivers are also in pain. They are the ones forgotten, not the ones forgetting. Ultimately, says Dosa, the significance of these moments goes beyond how or why the disease destroys. It’s not solely about the science behind the cat’s behavior—there is speculation that Oscar smells certain human pheromones that arise prior to death. Instead, there’s much to learn from the emotional support the cat offers to those in need.
Marion McCullough’s son is interviewed in the book, which spent weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. He and other caregivers acknowledge the importance of Oscar. Despite the difficult experience of attending a loved one dying of dementia, they can’t help but smile at the mention of this feeling feline and his presence during those conclusive hours.
Oscar puts patients at ease. He offers comfort to the caregivers. When there are no family or friends present, he sits in their place. Although most people shy away from death, Oscar curls up next to it.
—Sarah E. Beauchamp