For more than a decade, Tish Sommers has not only dealt with her own private misfortunes, but mobilized other would-be victims to fight back.
The Oakland, Calif., woman's divorce -- after 23 years of marriage -- at age 57, and consequent loss of much-needed health benefits, led her to champion a national "displaced homemaker" movement to better the lives of other older women.
Now 70 and dying of cancer, Sommers is in the forefront of a growing effort to improve these women's deaths.
She brings to the task a characteristic bluntness and enthusiasm, conveyed in an anecdote that's become legend among colleagues in the Older Women's League (OWL) Sommers helped found in 1980. Last summer, while rafting on Idaho's Middle Salmon River, she and her companions found themselves poised at the top of a wicked stretch of rapids. Sommers, laughing, reportedly called out, "At least my affairs are in order!"
She was being literal.
The cancer, which she learned six years ago had recurred and spread 20 years after a mastectomy, has been slow-growing. But while she's not abandoned hope or treatment -- she's completed courses of radiation and chemotherapy and is embarking on a new, experimental program -- the stately woman with the former dancer's regal bearing doesn't intend to leave her final days to chance.
As part of her effort to educate older women about the need to plan for their deaths or the deaths of intimates, she recently sent a letter to OWL's 12,000 members, sharing with them her own final plans.
She described those plans in a recent interview:
"What I've done is this: I have a living will. It's in my doctor's chart. I've selected someone (coactivist and housemate Laurie Shields) to be my surrogate. I've filled out a durable power of attorney for health care.
"Most important, I've rehearsed with persons close to me what to do if, for example, I'm in a coma. The answer for that is do not call an ambulance, which would take me to an intensive care unit . . . I plan to die at home. I've talked it over ahead of time with both those close to me and my doctors . . .
"As for my funeral plans, I belong to a memorial society that will be able to handle the case. I've decided on cremation and a memorial service. My purpose is to keep things inexpensive, simple and -- as an expression of the way I've looked at life in general -- to make the service a celebration of life."