It’s not every day you see a cat walking on a leash, much less a cat willingly doing so without putting up any sort of fight.
Welcome to The Forest at Duke, where such unicorns not only exist – they thrive!
Forest resident Carol Durham’s cat Sam regularly strolls around the shaded courtyard outside their apartment, perusing the area while the other end of his long red leash rests safely in Carol’s hand. Sam is one beloved feline in a long line of furry predecessors to have graced the retired psychotherapist’s life.
“My dad brought me my very first kitten when I was about three years old,” she says. “They’ve always been a part of my life.”
Sam is actually Sam Two. Sam One was his immediate predecessor. Before them, Carol shared her home with all sorts of other cats over the years – Siamese, calico, Persian – every one of them a rescue.
Finding comfort in one another
Lovable Sam is a portly tuxedo cat who, one might say, closely resembles a panda cub. He brings calm and comfort to Carol’s life, a blessing she doesn’t take for granted.
“I put my arms around him and bury my face in his fur,” she says. “I can feel my blood pressure go down 10 points, I swear. That’s perhaps why pets are suggested so often for older people – for comfort, to help them relax and be other-focused.”
Rescued as a kitten, Sam’s early life was unknown at the time of his adoption, as was his potential size. Turns out, it’s 17 pounds!
“Whenever I pick him up, I often wish he came with handles!” Carol says.
Sam is intrigued by life at The Forest. Bunnies, squirrels, birds, and dogs pass his window on a daily basis. Birds are a challenge for him. They often scold him and sound the alarm to others.
“It’s amusing to see Sam drop into his predator crawl when he spots a bird on the ground,” Carol describes. “Of course, he’s a large, black bump on a flat, green grass surface and is easy to spot.”
According to his person, Sam has never gotten closer than two yards away before his “prey” takes off. When he and Carol first started walking outside at The Forest and the resident dogs did likewise, the dogs of course did their duty as law-abiding pups and barked. Sam, having lived a shelter life without dogs, always took off for home. Soon, though, he learned that dogs, too, were on leashes; now he basically ignores them.
Sam and Carol share a wonderful life together. When the two aren’t ambling around the grounds at The Forest, Sam enjoys watching birds and squirrels on the patio from one of his many favorite indoor perches. He adores the cat tree in Carol’s bedroom but also likes hanging out by the sliding glass patio door. A blanket-covered chair by the front bay window also makes a nice place to rest.
Undoubtedly, though, Sam’s favorite place is wherever his retired companion happens to be. Carol says he loves curling up next to her in what she calls their “big, ugly, brown chair,” a chair-and-a-half accent piece bought specifically so that she and Sam could sit side-by-side. However, she explains, when the two sit together, Sam slowly but surely gets the chair while she gets the half!
Discovering The Forest
Eight years ago, Carol traveled down to North Carolina from her home in Indiana to stay with her daughter in Raleigh for a month. A long-time lover of school and learning, Carol was intrigued when her daughter introduced her to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) through nearby Duke University.
“I took two classes the month I was here, and about the second Saturday, I woke up and said, ‘I can move here,’” Carol recalls.
Having lived in the Midwest all her life, Carol had great friends in Indiana but didn’t have any family there. The decision to move closer to one of her children and to the learning opportunities available through OLLI was an easy one. From her daughter’s house in Raleigh, Carol called a realtor friend and asked her to put her Fort Wayne home on the market. “I’m moving to North Carolina,” Carol told her.
Once Carol got into the full swing of OLLI classes, she became well acquainted with The Forest, since the program participants meet in the auditorium on campus. The concept of continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) was a new one to her, as she had not been aware of such places while she lived in the Midwest. The idea intrigued her, and she soon found herself on a quest to visit other areas CCRCs to see what they had to offer.
“I would always ask when I visited them, ‘What’s the best and the worst thing about where you live?’” Carol says. When she posed this question at The Forest, all three people she asked said that friendliness is the best thing. No one could think of a negative.
“That convinced me,” Carol explains with a smile, fondly remembering her decision to move into The Forest at Duke. “That and being so close to Duke, [because] I really like to learn. I figured that this was a good place to do it!”
There’s no place like home
In May 2018, Carol – along with Sam – made the leap. The two soon began acclimating themselves to their new life on campus and found it very satisfying. Next to the kind demeanor of team members and her fellow residents, Carol discovered that campus dining services were her favorite thing about living in her new community.
“I don’t like to cook,” she chuckles. “I’m not a good cook. I fed three kids and a husband and…DONE. To have somebody plan the menu, buy the food, prepare the food, serve the food, and clean up after the food – is a miracle for me!”
Once she and Sam were settled in their new home in Durham, it was by chance, patience, and a lot of practice that Carol discovered how well a leash worked for Sam’s outdoor adventures. Though her apartment at The Forest is spacious, she recognized soon after moving in that her precious feline friend needed a little bit more room to run around, as is natural for cats. She bought a bright red harness and leash on a whim, knowing that the color would pop handsomely against Sam’s ebony coat.
Sam was unhappy wearing his new get-up the first few times, but he eventually began to relax and get used to the idea of leash training. Soon his outdoor escapades at the end of Carol’s lead became second nature, much to the delight of Forest team members, residents, and guests.
Today, still living large on campus, Sam enjoys the special companion he’s found in Carol and relishes life at a slower pace. Carol is as happy as a lark, too. In addition to enjoying the many wonderful things The Forest has to offer, she enjoys frequent phone calls from her three children – one son and two daughters – who each have feline friends of their own.
“I must have had some influence!” Carol says with a laugh, looking with love at her beloved panda cub.
—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist
Header image: Sam sniffs around the courtyard just outside their apartment while Carol holds the end of his bright red leash.