Aging parents and their pets


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A stray Jack Russell terrier wandered into my mother-in-law’s driveway one Christmas and quickly made a home in her heart. Mom loved having “a furry child” by her side to keep her company throughout the day. She named the dog Joy, which is exactly what the animal brought for more than a decade, comforting Mom through the death of two husbands.
Joy – like most cats and dogs – was very in tune with her owners’ feelings. Pets sense when someone is upset or unhappy and are excellent at providing instant comfort.
She also was a great protector, barking at any perceived threat. Having a dog made my mother-in-law feel safer in her home and may have allowed her to stay there, longer.
Studies have found that owning pets provides health benefits, too, including decreased blood pressure and cholesterol. Even heart attack survivors are more likely to live longer if they have a pet to keep them company. Joy motivated Mom to go outside for walks, which also afforded her a social life as she chatted with other pet parents in the neighborhood.
Yet in addition to being a companion, pets are a responsibility. So when her beloved Joy recently died, my mother-in-law decided not to get another dog. Though having the house to herself seems a little daunting, the 91-year-old admits that she can no longer care for an animal.
Sadly, I am relieved.
Pets need as much love and attention as a child, and eventually that may be too much for an elderly parent to manage. What happens when a pet outlives its owner? Who inherits the animal? Shelters are filled with the sad, sweet faces of pets whose owners passed away. How do adult children plan for the inevitable, with pets and aging parents?



Keep those cards and letters coming


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In the days of cell phones, email and text messages, letter writing can seem hopelessly outdated. My son recently informed me of his refusal to support the greeting card industry so I should not expect a Mother’s Day card.
Fortunately, I’ve saved a drawer full of handwritten notes from him as well as from his sister:
“Mom, I feel like lately we’ve gotten to be really close and I can talk to you about almost anything.”

To their father:

“I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have you as my dad. I hope you can come and visit me often in Chicago.”

I have no idea how to convey to my child that writing and receiving letters will always offer an experience that modern technology cannot touch. Twitter is fine for broadcasting what you’re eating for lunch, and email is fantastic for quick exchanges of pertinent information. But when it comes to sharing your true thoughts, sincere sympathies, ardent love, and deepest gratitude, words traveling along an invisible superhighway will never suffice. Why?

The impact of handwritten cards and letters lasts far longer than any text or email offered in our high-tech world. Years after they are written and sent (and even after their senders and receivers are gone), letters remain to be read, appreciated and preserved. I love seeing the familiar handwriting of my late grandmother and grandfather on old documents. Letters protect our memories in a way that technological communication cannot. They are tangible, personal and real, in every sense of the word.

Computers and smart phones may prove more efficient, but they can never take the place of this kind of sentimental history.

Letters create lasting memories.



Look for inspirational home ideas in her book, “Sweet Beams: Inspiring everyone who lives under a new roof,” available on

Comfy on a couch


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When you live a short drive from “Mickey and Minnie’s house” in Florida, you have overnight guests at least once a month. In the event of a big crowd, a few may even stay on your couch. Here are a few ways to make guests feel comfortable and welcome, even when they’re bunking on a sofa bed:

1. Replace end tables with dressers: Being able to unpack is key to feeling at home. To avoid mysterious piles of clothing in your living area, use a small dresser in place of a traditional end table to give guests space for their things.
2. Clear out closet space: Luggage can take up valuable real estate in tight quarters, so making room for your guest’s luggage in your closet helps both you and them feel better about sharing a small space.
3. Arrange an amenity area: Whether it’s your coffee table or end table, make sure your guests have useful items such as a small fan, an alarm clock and a table lamp within arm’s reach.
4. Stage a plug-in hot spot: Set up a designated charging area for phones, laptops and tablets. That way, guests can recharge at the end of a long day without having to hunt for outlets. Don’t forget to leave your WiFi password.
5. Provide bedding storage: Carve out a place where bedding can be stored during the day so that your sofa can be used while you are entertaining your guests. Try a chest, closet or storage ottoman.
6. Stock the liquor cabinet: Your guests won’t mind their accommodations at all.


Look for more inspirational home ideas in Renee’s book, “Sweet Beams: Inspiring everyone who lives under a new roof,” available on

No sunscreen necessary


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cici and hyatt entrance

Water, wildlife and magnificent palm trees…I spent an afternoon admiring the most extensive collection of Florida art in the world.
When the collection they started in the late 1990s mushroomed to the thousands, Cici and Hyatt Brown decided they wanted to share with the public 2,600 oil-and-watercolor paintings that cover a 200-year span of Florida dating back to the 1700s.
Hyatt is Chairman of the Board of Brown & Brown Insurance Agency and former speaker of the Florida House. His wife, Cici, is an avid volunteer and supporter of the arts. That support may be even more impressive than the canvases hanging inside their museum.
Working with local government leaders, the couple was able to put the new building on a wooded piece of land in Daytona Beach that the city donated. The Browns, in turn, donated $14 million for construction of a Florida Cracker-style structure which is owned and run by the Museum of Arts & Sciences. (Ever generous, the couple contributed another $10 million toward an endowment to cover operating expenses.)
I’m one of 23,000 visitors who enjoyed the collection during its first year. But the museum doesn’t only attract local residents. Art enthusiasts and scholars mingle with tourists who want to add a bit of culture to their beach travels. With Bike Week roaring to a start tomorrow, it’s nice to know that visitors can participate in cultural activities, along with traditional tourism offerings, here.
Who says you can’t mix some Wyeth with your waves?

Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, 352 South Nova Road, Daytona Beach, FL is open Monday-Saturday: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM and Sunday: 11:00 AM-5:00 PM

Travel tips


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traveler (1) by Duane Hanson

I recently spent time in the Orlando International Airport and discovered the rules of in-flight fashion are vastly different from those on the ground.
Clearly comfort trumps style when you’re sitting for hours in the air, with your knees pressed firmly into the seat ahead of you. And I’m not suggesting that travelers should struggle with their wheeled suitcase in four-inch stilettos.
Yet I’m appalled to see adults wearing pajama pants (flying can hardly be considered a slumber party.), work-out wear (FYI, there’s no gym on the plane) or ragged T-shirts and shorts best worn during yard work. I understand that time is of the essence and your children are crabby or crying from their Disney vacation. (Everyone else on your flight will be, too, shortly after take-off.)
So I’ve compiled a few tips to help you look and feel your best while avoiding an in-flight fashion faux pas.
– Complicated Shoes
This seems obvious to everyone rushing to catch a plane who stood behind a traveler as they undid boot straps and shoe laces. Wear slip-on shoes or sneakers when flying, as you’ll have to take them off in the airport security line.
– Stifling Fabrics
Skip fabrics that hold sweat on the skin when it’s hot as well as prevent air circulation. You won’t feel very fashionable sweating in too-tight, nylon clothes as your plane rests on the tarmac under the hot sun. A foolproof way to find breathable clothes for the plane: Stick with moisture-wicking active wear or clothes sold from travel suppliers, which are designed specifically for travel.
– Fragrances
Avoid this one for the good of your fellow passengers. Strong-smelling perfumes, colognes and body sprays shouldn’t be worn in flight. While some seat mates may simply find it offensive, others might suffer allergic reactions. Better to pack a sample size and apply it once you land.
– Layered Clothing
It’s fine to wear lightweight fabrics on a plane if you’re flying to or from a sweltering climate. But planes are often very cold and your “Mickey Muscle Shirt” won’t do. The best way to fight the air-conditioning is by layering. If you get warm, just remove a few layers, bundle them, and then use them as a pillow. (Preferably under your child’s face, rather than over it.)
– Offensive Clothing
How do you know if your outfit is appropriate? In the past, passengers have been removed from planes for wearing everything from low-cut dresses (Southwest Airlines) to saggy pants (Spirit) to T-shirts splashed with expletives (American.) A good rule of thumb: If you can’t wear it to church or dinner with your mother-in-law, you probably shouldn’t wear it on a flight.

Photo of “The Traveler” sculpture by Duane Hanson at Orlando International Airport.

The challenge of downsizing


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If you read the definition of “Down·size  (doun’siz’)” in the dictionary, it sounds easy: To reduce in number or size. To simplify (one’s life, for instance), as by reducing the number of one’s possessions. To become smaller in size by reductions in personnel or assets.
But for me, “downsize” means both a logistical and emotional challenge. It isn’t simply about getting rid of physical things: It’s also about releasing the emotional attachment that comes with them.
It recently took an entire month for me to move from one house to another. Children’s report cards, letters and photos require sorting and savoring. Friends who sell large homes and move to smaller ones appear equally unable (or unwilling) to dispose of their memories. We’re all saddened by adult children who are dismissive of childhood trophies and memorabilia that don’t blend with their current decorating scheme. We know one day, they will regret it.
When my friends ask, I offer one piece of advice: Get outside help.
I turned to my sister when the reality of needing to downsize finally settled in. A pragmatist, she honed her skills with a move to Brussels, Belgium followed by the sale of a large home in McLean, Virginia before downsizing to a townhouse in Annapolis, Maryland.
She ruthlessly attacked my closets and garage with the empathy of an avenging warlord.
Guided by the mantra, “When in doubt, throw it out,” we packed 14 carloads of household items and clothing – including my 1977 boxed wedding gown – and donated everything to the Neighborhood Center of West Volusia County. (The organization provides emergency and transitional housing for families in need.)
When we were finished, I felt no regrets – only relief. Actually, I felt a bit of satisfaction, too: The manager of The Neighborhood Center thrift store confided that our donations had boosted their revenues for more than a month!

In this case, less is definitely more.

Check out Renee’s book, “Sweet Beams: Inspiring Everyone Who Lives Under a New Roof,” available on


An honorable profession


Actor Nathan Lane spent a lot of time in book stores and libraries while growing up in New Jersey.

“They were magical places to me,” he admitted to more than 1,000 attendees at the annual Children’s Book and Author Breakfast in New York. “I loved Stuart Little books…perhaps because he was different. I felt different, too.”

Lane co-wrote a new children’s picture book, “Naughty Mabel,” with Devlin Elliot about an entitled French bulldog who bears an unmistakable likeness to the pet that shares Lane and Elliot’s home.

“I have to admit the real Mabel is highly-strung,” he concedes. “She is extremely stubborn, a little neurotic and a little needy – it’s like living with Gwyneth Paltrow.”

He describes the character in his book as “an amiable tornado, a happy-go-lucky oil spill,” whose surrogate parents love her unconditionally. He hopes that the story celebrates “family of all kinds.”

“Picture books have a very special place in our culture,” he says. “They are inherently a theatrical experience…essentially, a one-act play. We tried to write a great part for parents – who have to read the book, we hope,  for many encore appearances.”

Lane and Elliot “are thrilled and humbled” to be children’s book authors and to be among “people who are hell-bent on getting the right books into the right kids’ hands. If that is not an honorable profession, I’d like to know what is.”

Lane shared the stage with Oliver Jeffers, Rainbow Rowell and James Patterson.

Some things are worth waiting for


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This column originally appeared in The Tampa Tribune on May 6, 1986. I recently found it and, in honor of Mother’s Day, decided to share it with you!

When my husband and I learned that we were expecting our second child, we were thrilled. But time and technology have marched on since our daughter was born four years ago.
And even we old hands at parenting were totally unprepared for the response that greets my changing profile today.
“Do you know what you’re having?” is the universal question that bursts from the mouths of friends and acquaintances alike.
Yes, it’s a baby. We hope one with 10 fingers and 10 toes. But, beyond that, the other bits and pieces don’t really matter to us – blue eyes or brown, boy or girl.
However, this child’s gender seems to matter to everyone else.
Oh, I suppose the knowledge might help me better decorate the nursery in a more masculine or feminine motif. Or even monogram baby’s little linens in plenty of time for his or her arrival.
But I doubt that it could compare with the exhilaration we felt in the delivery room when, after a long and tedious labor, the doctor beamed at us above his surgical mask and said, “You have a little girl.”
Some things are worth waiting for.
Granted, the advances in prenatal medicine have been great: Sonograms can help detect abnormalities in an unborn child, but they won’t help you determine its sex unless he or she is positioned just right.
And the risks of amniocentesis (withdrawing amniotic fluid from the abdomen with a needle) for a healthy woman under 30 make it a ridiculous procedure simply to determine whether to engrave the birth announcements with pink or blue ink.
But these procedures were readily available four years ago – so why didn’t people quiz me back then? I suppose it has taken that long for technology to destroy yet another of life’s old-fashioned pleasures: discovering your child for the very first time.
It’s worse than discovering that Nabisco really does make a better cookie than your mom with “Almost Home,” even if they do need “lecithin and an added emulsifier” to do it. Or making Haagen-Dazs ice cream in a computerized plant in New Jersey instead of some Scandinavian kitchen.
Years from now, obstetricians may hand expectant mothers a complete dossier on their unborn child, including the sex, height, weight and mealtime preferences. That certainly would save us antiquated parents from wasting a lot of time in getting to know the little one.
Until then, our daughter, Kathryn, has requested a baby sister and I told her I’d keep that in mind.
As for myself, I like the suspense of not knowing whether the tiny feet that kick me now and then belong to a boy or a girl.

Tribune Architecture Critic Renee Garrison will complete her current “construction project” in September.

Formerly known as…


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She hides within your circle of friends, dressed beautifully in a designer wardrobe she bought when times were good and she could afford it.
But if you look closely, you’ll notice that when she joins you at restaurants, she orders club soda with a twist instead of a $14 glass of wine. She’s equally careful in her menu choices, counting every cent in her head. She begs off dividing the check evenly to cover desserts, cappuccinos and the second glass of chardonnay she didn’t drink.
She discovered how to do her own hair and nails, and prays that her aging luxury car doesn’t require repairs. In addition, she may be helping to support her adult child who fell on hard times.
She’s still as talented as ever, yet all of the online job applications she fills out seem to disappear into a black hole. Her work is sporadic now – mostly occasional consulting jobs.
She is over 55 and entered the uncertain world of formerly and used to be and isn’t sure anymore what her future holds.
“I feel terribly inadequate. I’ve held very responsible jobs over the years, yet I can’t seem to get hired today. Older workers like myself have ‘people’ skills that that the younger, computer generation lack.”
Looking for work is hard and filled with mounting frustrations and multiple rejections. She worries about staying upbeat and positive, and struggles to pull herself out of the slumps and setbacks so inherent to the process.
Finding a job is challenging for anyone in tough economic times, but it’s harder if you’re over age 50. It’s illegal for employers to discriminate based on age, but any older job-seeker will tell you it happens every day. That reality is colliding with the intent of baby boomers, most of whom hope—and need—to keep working past traditional retirement age.
Please tell her: What are the best strategies for landing a job when you’re “a woman of a certain age?”

Love and support


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A woman I’d known for 20 years pulled me aside at a luncheon and asked me to autograph a copy of my book for her daughter.
“My daughter left her husband and children…for another woman.”
I stopped writing and tried to process the information as my friend lowered her voice.
“I just want you to know that I was at an emotional low point when you posted a picture of your daughter’s wedding on Facebook. I’m not as open as you – I still haven’t told the rest of my family.
“But seeing that picture of you, with your daughter and her wife, really helped me a lot at the time. I’m very grateful and I wanted you to know how much I appreciated it.”
I could hear the quiver in her voice and I hugged her.
Parents of gay children often are uncomfortable with letting other people know their truth. They fear risking jobs, reputation and family ties…persecution by those who consider homosexuality sinful. (Of course, morality presumes freedom to choose and when it comes to sexuality…but I digress.)
Sadly, parents can feel isolated, guilty and confused about where to turn.
As one mother told me, “When my daughter came out of the closet as a lesbian, I went in.”
I’m no poster child, but experience has shown me that it’s not a good idea to keep such a secret from others who might be supportive or helpful.
Ultimately, my daughter’s life turned out to be exactly how I imagined it: A mortgage, a career and three children. The only difference is that she’s sharing it with a wife instead of a husband.
I certainly never wanted her to marry a man out of guilt or a desire for acceptance or because of negative attitudes in the community.
That’s simply too high a price to pay for silence about sexuality.

Renee’s gift book, Sweet Beams: Inspiring everyone who lives under a new roof,” is available on