Senior. That word defined the apex of student hierarchy at the girls’ boarding school I attended in La Caňada Flintridge. All the younger girls revered the seniors, and more than a few lower classmen developed crushes on one or another of those exalted students, the girls who were going off to universities after graduation. There would be arguments about who said what and whether or not some senior had behaved badly, and at some point someone would sneer, “Oh, that’s right, stick up for your crush!” There was nothing sexual in these relationships; the seniors, completely aware of our adoration, generally ignored us in much the way film stars and popular musicians manage to look through the grasping hands and shouts of their fans.
Now, the definition of senior (often with the word “citizen” tacked on at the end) means early bird (an odious attempt at cuteness) dinners at certain restaurants, reductions in the price of tickets to movies (excellent!) and, in some quarters, horror at the possibility of a 75-year-old president. Seniors often find themselves being condescended to — not a lot, just enough to catch a tone of voice usually reserved for not very bright children. Some older people rather enjoy being babied, others shut it down with a single glance; growing older does not necessarily mean one’s IQ slides down, like that hapless monkey on a greasy pole. Although sometimes you have to wonder, when you see older men with baseball caps turned backward and high-riding jeans that accentuate their broadening hips, or women of a certain age teetering on stiletto heels while dressed in designer ensembles meant for 20-year-olds with 20-year-old upper arms.
Then there are the seniors who are still working with passion and commitment. Think of President Jimmy Carter, Mavis Staples, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, George Takei and, perhaps most notably, the late economist Leonid Hurwicz, who won the Nobel Prize in 2007 at the age of 90. And those are just people who are familiar to the public. There are so many seniors who work tirelessly and anonymously as volunteers in hospital gift shops, public libraries or polling places. These volunteers are mainly women, and their patience is unending. When you go to cast your vote, take a look at the lineup of men and women who hand out the ballots; nearly every one is a senior, simply doing his or her duty as an American citizen. And finally, there are the untold numbers of grandparents who raise their grandchildren from infancy through graduation. That has to be one of the toughest jobs going: a second round of shepherding your charge through all the stages of childhood.
My grandparents, Fanny and Leon Lang, lived in a rambling bungalow in Piedmont with my grandmother’s unmarried sister and brother. I lived with them and they all raised me. I was a tiresome brat who, nevertheless, received unconditional love along with strict rules for proper behavior. My great-aunt Hotten taught me how to read before I reached kindergarten age, and my great-uncle Henry allowed me to play with all the jewelry in his pawn shop. Both grandparents provided laps to sit on and endless cuddles.
To be fair, there are seniors who can drive one batty with endless complaints and an obdurate will that disallows understanding things like how to work the remote control and/or a cordless phone, never mind the intricacies of a computer. But that’s a minor complaint; most older people are just who they’ve always been, only with a few decades tacked on. My mother could make me laugh until she died in her late 80s, still whip-smart.
There is another category of seniors that is too often ignored, except by their families: animals. While nearly everybody loves the soft, warm feeling and sweet aroma of a snuggling puppy — or kitten or bunny — far fewer people are willing to put in the work and expense of caring for that small bundle of fur through its senior years. Like humans, animals can become cranky — and not so well — as they age. A 12-year-old dog may not want to chase a ball or leap up to catch a Frisbee zooming over its head. An 18-year-old cat may not be as enchanted with that little fake mouse stuffed with catnip as it was when it was three or four. One would like to believe that racehorses (if they are not put out to stud) that have often earned millions of dollars for their owners are retired to clean stables surrounded by lavish meadows where they can run and roll about in sweet grass for the rest of their lives. Keep that thought if you don’t want the image of the blindfolded, no longer useful thoroughbreds being herded off to the slaughterhouse, as is too often the case. I read a frightful story last week about an older dog that, through the neglect of his owners, was suffering from mange and dumped at a shelter to be euthanized because he was “yucky.” Yeah, he may have been yucky — and in pain — but it was easier for his soulless owners to have him put down. That story led to the happiest of endings, with the shelter workers and resident vet working on him for months with medicated baths and ointments — funded by donations — and the dog cured and adopted by one of the shelter workers who cared for him during his recuperation. Beats being put out to sea on that metaphorical ice floe any day.
I’ve been a pet parent to three (now four) dogs and two cats (one of the cats, Landers, was a tiny sweet tabby rescued as a stray on Landers Street in San Francisco by The Mister, before he moved to L.A.), and all but one lived to be seniors. My first pet (rescued by and given to me by my daughter, Lisa) was a big Manx named Dexter who lived to be 22 and tried to kill every other cat he saw until he turned 16, when I was forced to keep him inside because he’d murdered a neighborhood cat; Dexter got even by shredding a new apricot velvet chair. I was allergic to him from the jump and he slept on my head every night. But, hey — I loved him. My first dog, Woofie, a scruffy little mutt, another gift from Lisa, was so smart we expected him to open his mouth and speak to us in long, perfectly formed sentences. He lived for 19 years. Diz, a fluffy blond bombshell who appeared on my doorstep as a puppy, became Dexter’s baby and was groomed by cat-tongue every day. He was 12 when he was killed by a psychotic kid during an overnight stay with a pet-sitter.
Then came Bobbie: shaggy, blond, rangy and locked behind a steel grill at a shelter. Our eyes met and I recognized a soulmate. He was a year old when I brought him home and introduced him to Diz and Dexter, both of whom accepted him at once. He was spot-welded to my side for the next 16 years and the pain I felt when he left was nearly impossible to bear. I’m weeping as I write and I’m pretty sure any pet parent reading this knows exactly how I feel.
I guess I’ve wandered a bit but what I’m really trying to say is quite simple: let’s cherish all our seniors, even when they annoy us — even when we become the ones who must pick up the tab for expenses, even when veterinarian bills are astronomical. In the end, none of that matters, because we’ll miss them so very much when they’re gone.