Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


My stepmother is dying -- A Sisterhood That Edures for Decades

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The room is warm and quiet, except for the slow, heavy breathing of deep sleep: My stepmother is in the last phase of her dying. We are all bonded here -- the aide from Ghana who sponges my stepmother's mouth with water, her colleague on the night shift, the nurses at the assisted living facility, the hospice leader who guides us into the dark night, the woman who had been my stepmother's assistant in landscape design, my daughter who arrives one day with a balloon to celebrate her 97th birthday.

We are all women.

This is the inevitable truth about the end of life for women. If we live a very long time like my stepmother, we will probably be single and dependent on other women at the finish line.

Demographics tell the story. Women outlive men by about six years. By age 85, there are more than two women for every man, the Census Bureau reports. Older men are more likely to have a spouse: 75 percent of men older than 65 are married, compared with 43 percent of women. Fewer than 15 percent of older men are widowed, compared with 45 percent of older women.

Longevity is not an equal opportunity situation. But women have struggled with inequality before. The women's movement is all about empowerment and breaking new ground: in the workplace, in politics and in the family.

Novelist Marilyn French, who died last week at age 79, personified the feminist wave that began in the 1960s and '70s. It was all about rage and revolution; about the legion of women who stormed into previously all-male arenas, from the classroom to clubs to combat.

The more recent wave has been softer, sexier. Men aren't the enemy, but they can be a problem. Oops, that glass ceiling! The earnings differential! And who is raising the kids? No paid parental leave for federal workers -- yet -- for the birth or adoption of a child? (Congress is working on it.) Why so few women in Congress? There's a way to go, baby!

Meanwhile, the women who once burned their bras -- and the ones who went to the hairdresser instead -- are stumbling together onto another battleground: the last decades of life. Many are widowed or divorced, back on their own again, dependent on the sisterhood for solace and support.

It's another kind of struggle. There is no rage. You can't get angry at men for not living long enough! That old strain of male-blame is over. We love our men and want them to grow old with us.

Women bring some particular skills to these last decades. In general, we are better health consumers: more willing to go to the doctor, ask questions, obey regimens, take advice. On the other hand, we have had to learn -- dare I say it? -- to be more like men in challenging diagnoses, standing up for ourselves, making sure we are getting the care that we need.

Meanwhile, older women face other stubborn issues. For example, we are twice as likely to be poor as older men are, according to "Unjust Deserts: Financial Realities of Older Women," a paper prepared for AARP by researchers at the International Longevity Center in New York. There is much to do to make old age a secure and welcome destination for all.

My stepmother was tough. Born in Mississippi, she spent much of her life in New England and had to adapt to Boston's chillier climate and culture. She had three husbands and reinvented herself after each one. After my father died, she was on her own for more than a quarter of a century. Those were productive years; she worked on restoring parks and public gardens in her adopted city.

In that Indian summer of her life, I was the family member on call. I once joked to her, "You have been with me longer than any of your husbands!" She smiled.

In the end, she was fortunate. She had the resources to hire aides to tend her in her last months. She had the benefit of hospice care. But many others are not so lucky.

Remember "Our Bodies, Ourselves?" That landmark book empowered generations of women to take charge of their own health, their own lives.

The price of longevity for most women is that we finish our lives ourselves. Without a guidebook.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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