Older women -- who cares about the care-givers?

FROM the outside, the two-story, century-old frame house at 3800 Harrison Avenue looks like an ordinary residence -- ``typical Oakland,'' as one native describes the architecture. A tree provides a pool of shade by the steps. Plants hang in the bow window. In front, a calico cat of Rubensesque proportions basks in the California sun, eyeing an approaching visitor warily. Step through the beveled glass front door and the mood of quiet domesticity changes. Welcome to the offices of the Older Women's League. Two charming older women who seem typecast to greet a visitor with a cup of tea are working at metal desks surrounded by filing cabinets in the spacious living room where a mahogany coffee table and overstuffed Victorian sofa ought to sit. Telephones ring. A photocopy machine hums. Instead of print dresses the two women wear jeans and navy sweat shirts with OWL, the acronym of their organization, blazoned across the front.

Thus do Tish Sommers, president of the Older Women's League, and Laurie Shields, co-founder and vice-president, dramatize their good-humored but firm determination to make themselves at home in the '80s, on their own equitable (and cozy) terms.

The two ``wrinkled radicals,'' as they describe themselves, founded the league 41/2 years ago to serve the often urgent -- but even more often overlooked -- needs of women between the ages of 50 and 65.

These are the pre-Friedan women who married young, raised children, and described themselves on official forms as ``housewife'' or ``homemaker.'' Now, in Ms. Sommers's phrase, many are ``displaced homemakers,'' statistical casualties of a divorce rate approaching 50 percent and a survival rate that sees 85 percent of wives outliving their husbands.

Many of the 14,000 members of OWL, belonging to 96 chapters in 36 states, typically find themselves in three predicaments.

First of all, they may be suddenly poor.

``A woman may have been middle class as we define it in this country,'' Ms. Sommers explains. ``When she's divorced, his situation may well improve. Hers is likely to go down very low. Her income may be below the poverty line. But she may perceive herself and be perceived because of her style and so forth as middle class. This is new poor, and it's very, very common among older women who are on their own.''

Predicament No. 2: These women, making a mid-life career change not of their choosing, may be poorly prepared to support themselves. With rusty or nonexistent work skills, the displaced homemakers find themselves displaced in the job market as well. Their cases are documented in letters appearing in the league's newspaper, the OWL Observer, edited by Ms. Shields, once a staffer of the old Los Angeles Examiner.

``I try to live on my social security pension of $337 per month,'' one woman writes. Another explains that at 61 ``I have never worked outside our home because my husband would not hear of it. Because of [his] death . . . I have tried to get a job, but I have no needed skills, and cannot find a paying job.''

The third predicament of the displaced homemaker is her isolation. Of all the minorities in America, she may belong to the least organized one. The Older Women's League is the first organization specifically directed to her needs.

One of the chief functions of OWL is to make members politically aware and train them in legislative advocacy. Sitting at a checkered-cloth table during lunch in the kitchen, dubbed the ``conference room,'' Fran Leonard, legal counsel for OWL, admits, ``At the federal level pretty much all we can do is get members to write letters. But state-level lobbying seems to be right up the sleeve of many older women, even though they approach it with all the mental blocks we all do, if we've ever been involved in it. It seems to be mastered quickly, and they seem to be extremely effective lobbyists.''

``It's all those days in PTA,'' Ms. Shields interjects, grinning wryly.

``They'll sit in a legislator's anteroom for an hour, waiting for him to get time to see them,'' Ms. Leonard continues, ``whereas somebody else, a younger man, for example, doesn't, and won't. They're patient, they're polite -- they always write their thank-you notes, and legislators love that.''

Ms. Sommers points out with visible pride:

``We had real success with passage of the Retirement Equity Act. While this is not the final answer as far as pension equity goes, it does address some of the important problems or loopholes women have faced.

``So many women would learn at the time of the funeral or thereafter that there was no pension -- that their husband's pension died with him. This is because the husband had opted for a higher retirement benefit in lieu of survivor's benefits. Now it's necessary for the wife to sign off -- to agree to the higher retirement benefit.''

After lunch, members of the staff thread their way past three cats wandering in and out and return to their desks in the former living room and former dining room. There they apply themselves to such duties as putting the finishing touches on another, more whimsical form of legislative advocacy. To underscore their concern about proposed cuts in the federal budget, members this month will send legislators a highly unconventional greeting card.

On the cover a cross-stitch sampler spells out a stern message: ``Your mother didn't bring you up so you could let other mothers down.''

Inside, the card poses a question -- ``What do you suppose she'd say about your vote on these issues?'' -- followed by a list that includes cutting social security cost-of-living allowances, low-cost senior housing, medicare, and federally funded social programs.

The message concludes: ``For her sake, or in her honor, we hope you will vote no on all of the above. Happy Mother's Day.''

Ms. Sommers explains: ``Mother's Day will be about the time when the federal budget question will be at its height, we figure. We're drawing attention to the myth of how we presumably treat mothers with respect and devotion.''

Both Ms. Sommers and Ms. Shields have been married. Both have brought up children. Both are acting out their own agenda. In an updated version of living over the store, the two women maintain separate quarters on the second floor of the house. Shared housing has been part of OWL's platform from the beginning, and they speak enthusiastically about its advantages.

``The concept of living alone would seem to me ridiculous,'' Ms. Sommers says, ``for reasons of expense, for company, for security, for mutual support. This kind of situation can replace the very important functions the nuclear family had in the past. Of course many older women have very close relationships with their offspring, for better or for worse, but in a mobile society you can't count on that.''

Then Ms. Sommers asks the important question -- the moral question -- upon which the Older Women's League rests: ``When their job is done, what are we as a society doing about the women who have raised families and are now facing their own old age?''

OWL is supplying practical answers. A series of workshops called Wingspan, conducted by the chapters, offers seminars on retirement income, employment for older women, housing, and legal questions. But the league, in the end, responds to Ms. Sommers's questions on its own moral terms -- calling attention to the displaced values that underrate the displaced homemaker.

These women, she argues with a passion, have devoted their lives to ``care-giving,'' not only for husbands and children but often for parents. ``Something like 85 percent of care of elders in this society is provided by nonpaid female relatives,'' she says. ``It's either the wife, or the daughter, or the daughter-in-law, or sister.

``As the population ages, and particularly as the medical profession is able to keep people alive but not make them well, there is more and more need for continuing care. The number of women who are really working night and day, unpaid, seven days a week, sometimes for years, to provide care for a spouse or parent has increased enormously.''

As one solution, a league task force has drafted a model bill to provide respite for care-givers -- someone to come in and take over for a while. ``That's a very minor kind of help,'' Ms. Sommers admits, ``but at least it's an opportunity to raise the problem and bring care-givers to the fore.''

Ms. Sommers has no dogma. But she sees herself fighting the dogmas of ageism. ``Instead of isolating older persons, instead of fearing aging, instead of casting off, essentially, a large percentage of the population, we have to devise some new forms of mutual support,'' she says, summing up. ``I don't know what these new forms are going to be, but I think women are the ones who are most likely to devise them.''

In the meantime, in this modest, human-scale headquarters, Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields and their organization will continue to raise their modest, human-scale questions: Do we value nurturing as much as we say we do? And if so, who will care about the care-givers?

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