Tag Archives: aging

A Dogged Sense of Purpose

When my husband and I moved from New York to Tennessee four years ago, we left behind our full-time jobs. My husband, a former orchestral trumpet player and music professor, took up composing, learning the piano, and studying music with a focus impossible in his busy working life. His days were happily filled.

Although I continued a part-time magazine editing job, and my fiction writing, there were still a lot of empty hours in my days. Too, writing is a notoriously isolating pastime – and one that often feels soul-sappingly insignificant. My new freedom weighed heavily on me. I felt somewhat adrift.

I have always loved dogs, and when we made our move we were dog-less for the first time in thirty years, having lost our golden retriever five months earlier. I decided to try volunteering at our new city’s busy animal shelter. I began by walking the shelter dogs twice a week. My enthusiasm and commitment grew, my roles expanded, and before I knew it I had found what I was looking for: a new purpose.

It’s hard to feel adrift when being pulled along by a 75-pound pit bull eager to get to the exercise yard. I can’t doubt that I’m making a difference when a dog who formerly cowered in the corner of her run and growled at me now jumps up when I come near, wagging and loudly demanding an outing. Helping at a vaccination clinic in one of our city’s poor neighborhoods, I know that I’m enabling those pets to be healthier and their guardians to receive vet services they couldn’t otherwise obtain for the animals they love. When I put my writing abilities to use in creating a newsletter for the shelter and crafting animal bios to help them get adopted, it doesn’t feel isolating or insignificant. In fact, my animal welfare work has given new energy to my writing, inspiring this blog, now in its second year, and a memoir-in-progress about what the shelter dogs have taught me about resilience, trust and love.

I am not alone in finding a new vocation in volunteering “over 50.” At our shelter the contributions of retired people add up to hours and hours of cost-free, often highly skilled and committed labor. And, in addition to offering the competencies honed in our former careers, we gladly perform all the unglamorous chores that help keep the animals healthy and lift some of the burdens from the staff – doing dishes and laundry, cleaning kennels and outdoor yards, restocking supplies. After years in the work world and raising families, older volunteers can see what needs to be done and do it without being asked or needing our hands held. We’re generally emotionally mature, too, so we show up when we say we will, and can accept criticism or guidance without getting defensive.

Beyond the fact that we all love animals, our reasons for volunteering at the shelter are as varied and personal as our chosen areas of specialization. Maureen and Phil, a husband and wife team of photographers, take stunning photos of the shelter dogs and cats. Lee, whose medical condition prevents her from being able to handle the big rowdy dogs, uses the photographs to design gorgeous posters for every adoptable animal, and puts them on Instagram and Facebook. ​Sonia and Irene have told me that volunteering filled voids in their lives left, respectively, by the death of a spouse and retirement from a much-loved career as a physician. (The fact that the majority of the volunteers I serve with are women demonstrates that animal welfare work is an area where women are especially valued.)

For me, an added benefit of my shelter work is that it helps me feel young. Dogs don’t care about gray hair, wrinkles, or a stiffness in my gait. Because of my willingness to do just about anything asked of me, I am treated as an equal by people decades my junior. The workouts while walking the dogs rack up my daily step total and keep me agile and strong. I’m learning all the time, gaining new skills.

And I’m able to do things that younger people simply can’t. Last night, for instance, Becca and I – both of us on the far side of 65– set out at 6 p.m. to drive a transport of 12 dogs 2 hours north to meet a driver who would ferry them on to Michigan, where shelters, like many up north, lack a sufficient supply of adoptable dogs. At the rendezvous point, a shopping center in Knoxville, we had to climb repeatedly in and out of our tall cargo van to get the dogs out of their crates for walks before their long trip north. Then we had to put them back (in many cases like trying to cram a spring into a too-small box). When the relay driver arrived we had to get them all out again. Back at the shelter at 11 p.m. we unloaded all the heavy crates for cleaning. I was, quite literally after hugging so many puppies, pooped. Yet I felt a deep satisfaction that I could perform this particular life-saving service, which would be impossible for someone who had to care for young children or wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to a job.

I think the secret to never being over the hill is always setting yourself a new hill. Not one so forbidding that it compromises your physical or emotional well-being — just one that challenges you, expands your heart’s capacity, and opens new vistas before you. And in my case, I hope that a furry friend will always be my companion on the journey.

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For information about the range of volunteer roles offered by animal shelters, both onsite and off-, please see my posts “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part I” and “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part II”

On the DL

My dog Ruby and I are both on the Disabled List (in sports terms, the DL) at present.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, last weekend, she came to my side of the bed and nuzzled my hand, whining, something she never does unless she needs to go out. I got up and limped (more about that later) to the back door to let her out. She did her business and by flashlight I verified that there was no problem with that. Normally I wouldn’t have been so inquisitive, but we had a major family event later that day, for which our son had flown down from New York City and my brother and sister-in-law had come up from Atlanta. If Ruby had a problem I wanted to know exactly what it was so that I could deal with it promptly, both for her good and for the smooth functioning of the day which we had all been looking forward to for over a year.

When she came back into the house she was clingy and holding her tail funny, crooked to the side. Her amber eyes entreated me to make it better. I told her I would try, and at first light we headed off to the local emergency vet. An impossibly young and fresh-faced doctor examined her – no problem with the anal glands, which was my first suspicion since she had shown the same symptoms the previous summer and that had turned out to be the cause. He did find a small cyst a few inches below her tail, and biopsied that. Could that cause the tail immobility? I asked him, and he shrugged and said possibly: the cyst was inflamed and she had obviously been licking it. He gave her some pain meds and a Cone of Shame, and we headed home. I was at least reassured that her distress would soon be relieved and wouldn’t disrupt our plans. (Though I admit I will worry until I learn that the biopsy of the cyst is normal, in a few more days.)

Ruby with the C.O.S. (The bed is borrowed from her basset hound cousin Slapshot the Awesome Hockey Dog, who tweets — via his press agent, my sister Adele Jones — for the Nashville Predators.)

As for me, a week ago, chronic stiffness in my hips localized and intensified deep within the left hip. I thought I could walk it off, and took Ruby for our usual 3 mile hike in our favorite park. Trying to ignore the pain I focused on the warm sun, the blue sky, the distant vistas of hills and valleys visible through the bare trees, the sounds of spring birds. Spring, already, here in Tennessee, in mid-February — it amazes this ex-New Yorker. There were even some daffodil spears poking up from the ground.

But my “cure” only aggravated the situation. The pain became acute – not enough to mar my pleasure on our big family day the following Sunday, but severely limiting my mobility. By Monday I was using the device my husband acquired after he tore his knee in an injudicious but glorious last hurrah as a softball player at age 64. This device is cleverly marketed by L.L. Bean to age-resistant baby boomers like me as a “trekking pole”; it’s sporty green aluminum, adjustable, with a rugged cork grip. But, in truth, in form and function it is a cane. And, hobbling along with it when we all went out to breakfast on Monday before taking our son to the airport, I felt that people were looking at me differently.

Though I’m in my mid sixties, I have prided myself on being active, and especially in my ability to handle the biggest, rowdiest dogs in the shelter where I volunteer several hours a week. In fact, walking them, giving them a break from their confinement, the stimulation of time outdoors, and the sociability of one-on-one interaction with a human – all have become, in the 3 years I’ve been doing it, a major part of what I consider my mission in life. But now, suddenly, I can hardly even walk Ruby around the block.

I also regularly drive dogs and cats from our shelter to a partner shelter in Atlanta, which involves climbing in and out of a tall cargo van and lifting heavy crates – activities which, in my present state, seem as impossible as pole-vaulting 20 feet.

In short, I am beginning to experience a premonition of the losses that accompany what our witty and kind former doctor once called “attaining longevity.” I liked his positive spin on the matter and, having lost my parents at 47 and 55 respectively, am grateful for every year of life denied them but granted to me.

And I have an inspiring model for aging well in my maternal grandmother, who into her late 80s was still walking the beaches and fishing off the pier in her Jekyll Island, Georgia home. She delighted in asking strangers to guess her age and seeing their genuine amazement when she told them the number.

So I don’t hide my age. But I have tried to hide (from myself as well as from others) its increasing limitations: the difficulty of rising from a kneeling position, the stiffness after a prolonged sit, the haze of cataracts over my vision.

But the cane, the limp – they tell the story loud and clear.

Probably I have pulled a muscle and with rest and gentle stretching will get back to normal, back to the nature walks with Ruby that nourish my spirit, back to the outings with the shelter dogs that give me the sense – rare enough in other areas of my life – that what I am doing really, truly makes a difference. And if, as I attain greater longevity, I have to give up certain activities – like walking the biggest and most energetic dogs, there will still be many ways to help and serve them. In recent posts I described the abundant menu of volunteer roles at our shelter and, presumably, others, so need only to choose different activities from that list to continue the mission that has become so central to my life.

Here again my grandmother is my model, as she continually adapted to loss and change. She experienced more loss that seems fair for one person to have to endure: her parents, naturally; twelve brothers and sisters; husband; friends – and, most unnaturally, all four of her children. Yet she never complained. She took a keen interest in other people, kept a great sense of humor, stayed active. When, at 90, she realized that she could no longer handle driving and living alone, she sold her house and moved to Nashville, to an assisted living facility near my mother and sister. She always said she didn’t want to be a burden. Whenever she experienced sadness or discouragement, she would sit and read her Bible, sharing her troubles only with her Lord.

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On a follow up visit to our regular vet, he diagnosed Ruby’s recent problem as a sprained tail! Too many exuberant greetings as so many exciting people – her “brother,” Marcus, her “aunt and uncle,” my brother and sister-in-law – arrived to share the special day. Useless to tell her to approach love and life with less gusto, more restraint.

In this, she gives me another model for how I want to face the future: Reveling fully in the joy of the moment. Loving without counting the cost. And always eager to explore new terrain — even if with a crooked tail and a gimpy gait.