Death is the one certainty in life, but the point at which our time comes is almost always a mystery. Particularly in nursing homes, residents often give no indication at all that they may not see another day and slip away without time for a loving goodbye from friends and family.
Predicting death is a power long-sought by scientists, and is often expected to come in the form of a biomarker or perhaps an excreted molecule that could indicate the time is nigh. What absolutely no one expected, however, is that the harbinger of death would come in the form of Oscar the cat.
Born in 2005, Oscar appeared to be an ordinary cat. He was adopted by Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, and, as resident cats in so many nursing homes do, Oscar would explore the grounds and visit patients daily, though rarely stopping for much interaction. Perhaps that was a good thing, for Oscar seemed to have an unnatural ability at predicting death.
Oscar would sometimes stop and curl up next to a resident, spending time with them not often given to others. Shortly after, that resident would almost invariably pass away.
Over his time at the nursing home and until 2010, Oscar accurately "predicted" the deaths of 50 residents. Oscar’s delivery of bad news became so reliable that care workers at the nursing home would call family members to a resident's side to say their farewells if Oscar had visited that resident.
Oscar’s presence may have been foreboding, but he also provided companionship while the residents passed. Many such people could no longer remember their relatives’ names, but Oscar stayed by their side and allowed loved ones a chance to say goodbye – a chance others often do not get.
Within the nursing home now lies a plaque, dedicated to Oscar’s incredible work and demonstrating how highly regarded he was by workers:
“For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat," it reads.
Oscar’s abilities also called into question scientists’ understanding of predicting death. Much like with the lady that can smell Parkinson’s disease, science must adapt and include cases such as this to try and uncover just how individuals can identify what machines cannot.
Inspired by Oscar, researchers are exploring how AI could fill his fluffy shoes and potentially predict death in a similar fashion.
For now, though, we are left to try and understand just how one cat could do what the entire human race cannot.
Believe it or not, a study on Oscar the cat is published in the Journal of the Intensive Care Society.