A writer's celebration of older women

Saying Farewell to a Good Old Friend

We suffered a death in our family this week, and although I saw it coming, letting go of my good old dog Claudette (a.k.a. Big Girl, Baby Doll and Ms.Thang) was almost more than I could bear. She died peacefully in the vet’s office, almost 15 years to the day she came to live with us.

It was a snowy, cold morning in western Colorado when we drove three hours to the breeder’s home near Crested Butte to pick up our new baby, a ten-week-old, cream-colored Standard Poodle. I’d been smitten with her since I saw her photo in an email, but once I met her – a robust, oversized female puppy with a quiet disposition – I was over the moon. Even after she threw up her kibble all over me and the front seat of my new Subaru on the way home.

“What’s her name?” I asked the breeder.

“Oh, I never name the puppies,” she told me. “It just makes it harder to let them go, so I call them all Sweetie.”

Sweetie became Claudette, a name befitting both her French heritage and our last name.  She was a healthy and happy dog with a calm, almost stoic demeanor. She excelled in obedience training (I believed her to be the smartest dog in her class) and seldom met a person or other animal that she didn’t like, with the possible exception of our male toy poodle, who liked to hump her leg.

And squirrels. She hated those little rodents, especially one with a stunted tail who used to taunt her from the high branches of a cottonwood tree near our back deck. Claudette chased that squirrel for at least two years until the day I saw her in the back yard mouthing something wet and furry. She’d finally killed her nemesis. For months afterward, she would run to the tree and look upward every time she was let outside. Making sure he was still dead, I suppose.

Claudette handled our monumental cross-country move last summer – two humans, two cats and three dogs in an SUV pulling a pop-up camper – like a trouper. I still laugh about the night she literally fell out of the camper through a gap in the tent. We didn’t realize she was missing until the next morning when we woke up and she wasn’t inside. I went into a panic until I opened the camper door to find her standing just outside, with muddy legs and what appeared to be a smile on her face. It must’ve been an excellent adventure because she slept the entire day.

We watched her slow decline over the past year, sleeping more, playing less and seeming confused, almost like a canine Alzheimer’s patient. Then, the week prior to her death, she seemed to rally, enjoying her food again, running in the yard with our other two dogs, and teasing the dogs next door through the fence. Maybe she sensed that her days were coming to an end.

She was my buddy, always eager for a walk or go in the car until she got too old to care. On the morning of her last ride, her sister, Simone, gently licked her face before Daddy put her in the car. Our daughter said Simone howled the entire time we were at the vet’s office. Somehow she must’ve known she would never see her sibling again.

I felt like howling, too. But I take some comfort in the fact that she lived a long and beautiful life, and that we able to give her a serene, dignified death. As the sedative took effect, she rested her chin on my leg while I talked to her about all the good times we had shared through the years.

She closed her eyes for the last time and left this world knowing how much she was loved. Our beloved pack leader is gone, and my heart is shattered.


A Valentine for my Mother with Dementia

The nurse at my mother’s long-term care facility called me Tuesday night to let me know that Mom had fallen . . . again. She got up to go to the bathroom and didn’t use her walker, which she’s been instructed to do countless times. So she fell, spraining her wrist, and because she didn’t have the presence of mind to pull the emergency cord in the bathroom or the physical strength to get up, laid on the floor until someone came in to check on her.

Mom is 96, deaf, frail and suffering from dementia. My brother and I have lost count of the number of falls she’s had over the past few years. She’s gouged her leg, bruised her collarbone and broken her glasses. She’s been hospitalized at least twice, most recently last fall when she developed a urinary tract infection that had gone on for quite some time before she told anyone on the staff that she needed to see a doctor. By the time her problem was discovered, she’d gone into renal failure and we almost lost her.

She wasn’t allowed to return to assisted living after that incident, so when she was released from rehab her only option was the nursing home. Did I mention that she lives about 1,500 miles away, so it’s not like I can jump in the car and run over to see her? My brother is closer, but it’s still a half-day drive for him.

We’ve all but given up on trying to talk to her – she won’t wear her hearing aids because she claims she doesn’t need them. Yet she can’t hear the phone when it rings. I’ve explained to her over and over again that she needs the hearing aids so I can call and talk to her, but she forgets. Or refuses. I’m not sure what goes on in her head.

During one of the last conversations we had before dementia took over her thought process, she wanted to know why God wouldn’t let her die. Mom has outlived her husband, all of her siblings and her close friends. She lives in an environment governed by meal times and the few activities she still enjoys. Not much of a life, by any standard.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” she told me. “I can’t understand why I’m still alive.”

I can’t, either. The loving parent who taught me to read, sew and cook; and who instilled a lifetime love of music and art; that woman is long gone, replaced by a shell of a human being with little of her personality.

When it comes to death, we treat our pets with more kindness and compassion than we do our human relatives. We can choose to end our dog or cat’s suffering, but people aren’t entitled to the same treatment. They’re warehoused and kept alive even when common sense tells us otherwise.

So on this Valentine’s Day, I’m sending Mom all my love and the hope that she will soon get her wish – to pass away peacefully with her last bit of dignity intact. She’s still my mother, even if she no longer remembers me, and she deserves no less.

If You’re Over Fifty, Ladies, You Probably Don’t Like Your Body

I read about a recent study that showed only 12 percent of women age 50 and older are satisfied with their bodies. Immediately, I began compiling a mental checklist of all the things about my own body that bother me – the muffin top, double chin and a lumpy, scarred abdomen, the result of multiple surgeries.

Half of the women surveyed said they envied the way younger women looked (yep!) and a third confessed that they think about their weight every day (also true). Not long ago, I commented to a friend my age that I can tell if a woman is pre-menopausal because of her beautiful, glowing skin. After “the change,” no amount of expensive cosmetics can bring back that creamy, lit-from-within look.

I suspect that with most of us, body dissatisfaction began early in life. In my case, I can remember being put on a diet by my mother when I was about six years old, forced to eat a banana instead of what I really wanted – cake. The following year, I was humiliated in front of all my classmates when we were weighed in school, with the offending number called out for everyone to hear. My only consolation was knowing there was one bigger girl, so at least I wasn’t the fattest in the third grade.

At about age 12, my mother brought home an uncomfortable “training bra” and insisted that I wear it to school. Training for what, I’ve always wanted to know. The Titty Olympics? Boys didn’t have to go through these same strange rituals. They weren’t encouraged to reshape their bodies, get rid of unwanted hair or lose weight to be thought of as attractive.

Flash forward a few more years to college, when my fiancé came over after his hospital shift, unshaven, still in his scrubs and in need of a shower, to berate me for “letting myself go.” I still don’t know what he was referencing. (To my credit, I broke off the engagement not too long afterward.}

So here I am, half a century later, still dealing with some of the same old issues, and trying not to pass them on to my three-year-old granddaughter. There will be no mention of the word “fat” in regard to ourselves. I vowed I’d never make her sit at the table until she finishes her vegetables like my mother did. There will be no “good” foods vs. “bad” foods in our household. She can eat as much or as little as she wants during meal time, but if she chooses not to finish what’s on her plate, she can’t come back an hour later and beg for snacks.

I tell her that she’s strong and smart instead of focusing on her cuteness. She already gets enough of that through the ridiculous Disney films that promote a “princess” culture. “I’m a princess,” she told me, twirling around in a garish “Frozen” costume.

No, you’re not, honey, but you’ll find that out soon enough. I just hope you’ll learn to love your body, imperfections and all, and not let anyone tell you that you’re not beautiful, just as you are. I wish someone had said that to me long ago.


Older Women – the “New” Faces of Fashion?

I was somewhat surprised to read an article last week about the “new” faces of haute couture: 80-year old Joan Didion modeling for the French fashion line Celine; musical icon Joni Mitchell, 71, posing for St. Laurant; and 60-something actor Angelica Huston in a Gap ad. Finally, I thought, we get to view positive images of older women instead of some stick-thin teenager sporting fake breasts and a sullen expression. Granted, none of these ladies are young, but they are all vital, attractive and fashion-oriented. What could be wrong with that?

Plenty, according to the media backlash. Another article called the trend toward older women in fashion ads “an act of desperation.” These individuals are role models, the author claimed, who should be concerned with more serious issues afflicting the over-60 demographic: poverty, declining health, etc., instead of something as trivial as fashion. Few of us can afford to buy the designer clothing featured in these ads, so therefore the over-aged models are being disingenuous.


Could it possibly be that the media is overthinking this trend? Maybe it’s as simple as wanting to look good – at any age.

Earlier this month, I spent several days visiting my 96-year-old mother in a long-term care facility. She is fragile, deaf, and can’t remember what she said two minutes ago. Despite her health issues, she still gets dressed up every day, choosing her outfit from a collection of print blouses, knit tops and pull-on pants in every shade imaginable. The only saving grace of her new room, she informed me, is its location just down the hall from the beauty shop. Now she’ll never have to miss her usual Friday morning appointment.

Most of the women in her wing were no different. I ate lunch with several of her friends, and many were dressed to impress in coordinating outfits accessorized with necklaces, bracelets, wedding and engagement rings from long-departed husbands. One perfectly-coiffed lady wore a lime green knit scarf that enhanced her pale skin. When I complimented her on it, she beamed. That afternoon, there was a virtual stampede of walkers and motorized wheelchairs to the community room, where free manicures were being offered.

Back at home, I got an update on the spring color palette from one of my water aerobics buddies, a woman in her 70s who puts my knowledge of fashion and pop culture to shame.

From my perspective, fashion is about inspiration and self-expression, not having a closet full of expensive clothing. However, If buying a new outfit or getting our hair done boosts our self-esteem, no matter how old we are, how could this possibly be a problem? I’d love to see even more clothing manufactures feature their garments on models that look like a thinner, idealized version of me. Case in point: Angelica Huston is hardly what I’d call skinny, but if her Gap shirt fits a mature woman with generous breasts and a butt, it might look good on me, too.

We should be celebrating the awesome Jessica Lange, 64, as the new face of Marc Jacobs Beauty instead of criticizing the ad campaign as nothing but crass commercialism. Sure, they’ve got makeup to sell. So what? The more images of mature fashionistas that society views, the sooner we can move away from the stereotype of older women as hags and crones of little value.