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At the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a nursing home in the Bronx, NY where Gladys lives, her devotion to her beauty regimen is no anomaly. The 32-acre community is the host to 10 small beauty salons. Of Hebrew Home’s 850 residents, spanning the ages of 52 and 106, 72% are women. In addition to the nursing home, RiverSpring Health has assisted living on campus, called The Terrace, and an independent senior living complex called RiverWalk, complete with a salon. While some of their physical faculties are giving out on them as they age, women at the Hebrew Home retain at least one vestige of their old lives: visiting the salon weekly to be cut, colored, painted, waxed (facially, no bikinis) and generally fussed over. Spending time in the beauty salon offers the residents routine and self-care in this smaller, possibly creakier version of the world they’ve known all their lives.
My own grandmother Marilyn lives in a full-time assisted community in Illinois. Grandma, like many of the women I spoke to at the Hebrew Home, was a child of World War II. Even during the most extreme wartime rallies to reduce, reuse, and recycle, she cultivated her beauty habits. Now she and the people who love her wage a different war: her advanced dementia and her rapidly deteriorating quality of life. She’s lost her old apartment, her husband, her short term memory, much of her privacy, and nearly all the money she’d accumulated in her 90 years due to the astronomically rising prices of elder care. But she still visits the salon each Wednesday to have her nails painted by volunteers, and every Thursday to get her simple, close-cropped hair washed by a stylist. It’s a small luxury, but going to the salon gives her back a little bit of the humanity she’s had to surrender to age.
My own grandma’s routine tipped me off to the reality of the hundreds of thousands of other American women in assisted living facilities holding onto their vitality through a beauty regimen. At the Hebrew Home campus, I met women like Gladys: Molly, a 99-year-old spitfire; Ita, an 83-year-old artist; and Roslyn, who was just coming to the tail end of her first week residing full-time in an assisted community when I spoke to her. Roslyn was getting her hair set for the first time in longer than she’d like to admit. "I was in the hospital before this, so I haven’t had my hair done in two and a half months," she said. "Generally, when I was at home, I went every other week. Today, I’m having color and curls."
Roslyn, who lived in an apartment in the Bronx’s Co-op City for 40 years with her husband, left her home fairly abruptly and wasn’t able to gather her things, including her cosmetics. "I haven’t been to my apartment to take the things I need here," she said. "I feel funny without any lipstick on." When I asked her why she felt strange without a little bit of color on her lips she told me, "Because I wore it all my life."
For these senior citizens, it’s not really about the makeup or the hair, it’s about the activity of getting ready. As a young person who cultivated her beauty routine at a college on a nowhere-to-go farm in central New York state, this is something I know well. We’d cheat our lip size with purple crayons and craft elaborate braids, only to realize hours later we’d rather stay in and watch TV instead. The ritual of beauty, rather than the look itself, is often most important. It’s no different between twentysomethings and ninetysomethings. "The seniors here will get dressed up for doctor’s appointments," a stylist at the Hebrew Home told me.
Putting on lipstick or getting a hairdo may be the only part of a senior’s former life that remains when she moves into a senior living facility, and it can ease the transition for everyone involved. "My son told me this morning, ‘I’m so glad you’re getting your hair done. I want you to get your hair done as often as you used to,’" said Roslyn. "When he sees me, he wants me to look like he used to see me look. And he knows I feel better when my hair is done."
Even in senior living communities, dominant beauty trends prevail. In the facility, residents keep their makeup minimal and their hair cropped or tightly permed. Molly, a 99-year-old resident of The Terrace I met in the salon as she was getting a wash, cut, and blowdry, wore elaborate and colorful makeup up until just about six months ago, when she moved into the facility. "Women my age don’t use makeup anymore," she said, "So I feel like if I use it now, it’ll be like having war paint."
Molly looks great without makeup, though I would love to see her with a full face if it made her feel more like herself. She told me I too could have smooth skin like she does when I’m 99. I asked what her secret was and she said, "Hanky panky. I have a boyfriend. We have a telephone romance now." Molly and her boyfriend met ballroom dancing and have been together 17 years. "I met all my boyfriends ballroom dancing," Molly said. "What, you think I only had one?" I never would have assumed as much.
Renee Carpenito, a stylist who has worked at the senior community RiverWalk for the last 15 years, does what she can to keep the residents from looking identical. Renee assesses her clients’ skin tones and gives them highlights or lowlights depending on that profile, mixing up the placement and exact shade so there's a bit of variety. Residents with white hair particularly love Clairol’s Shimmer Lights shampoo, which lends an icy glow.
I met Ita, an 83-year-old getting the second perm of her life in her snow white hair at the RiverWalk. She wanted a hairdo that was easy to take care of. Ita is a working artist; her wrists are filled with beaded bracelets she made herself. Ita has arthritis in her feet, and has taken to bedazzling her special orthopedic shoes with rhinestones using a surgical needle. Like many couples, she and her husband aged at a different rate. He lives across the street from her apartment on campus in a nursing home. She and a group of other women in similar domestic situations make the short trip together and disband to go meet up with their "old men."
Ita keeps her routine simple (a bit of lipstick, a lot of jewelry), but exacting. She only wears red and blue. "My Chinese doctor told me to do that a long time ago," she said. "Red is the life force — it’s blood. And blue is the heavens. None of this is new stuff."
The Old Stuff continues to work for Ita and her neighbors at RiverWalk, and their beauty routines are a testament to that. On Fridays, the salon’s busiest day, legions of residents line up outside the door waiting to get ready looking good for the weekend, even if they’re bound to campus. "Every day, they don’t feel that great," said Renee, "they could stay in their room all week but they’ll come out on Thursday or Friday if they know they’re getting their hair done." It’s an opportunity for the residents to socialize, feel pampered, and maybe even feel like their old selves again.