THE IMPECCABLY ordered closets of Deane Robbins brim with tailored wools, buttery silks and snazzy colors. In the dresser, soft peach lingerie is delicately folded. On a mirrored tray stand perfume bottles: musk oil, Obsession and the classic White Shoulders.
Robbins is somewhat of a classic herself. In her Evan Picone pleated white skirt, Navy blazer and matching pearl jewelry ensemble, she doesn't look like a little old lady of 80.
"I like to dress young. I think young. I think that has a lot to do with how well I am," says Robbins with a honeyed drawl from her native Richmond.
Though retailers and advertisers spend millions appealing to women younger than 65, little is promoted as fashion and beauty for elderly women. Within the untapped market are women who want to maintain a fashion sense, but are hindered by finances, health or selection.
Muumuus and orthopedic shoes, step aside!
Robbins, the wife of a former pharmacist afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, is a looker. Petite and trim and well-coiffed, she says she prides herself on looking good at an age when people expect less from the elderly.
"People always comment about how I'm all dressed up. But really, this is how I always look," Robbins says.
"Especially men," she adds.
Unlike many senior citizens, Robbins is not on a fixed income that tries to stretch too few dollars into food and housing. She describes herself as lucky and thankful, but says she doesn't squander.
"See this skirt? It's an $88 skirt, but I paid $22 for it. I watch stores and I watch clothes," she says, explaining how she keeps a patient eye on pieces she would like to acquire but only after they've been discounted. "I think this jacket was originally $149, and I got it for $50 and some."
She had expected to enjoy these fine things with her husband, Sam, with the hard-earned money from the Forest Park pharmacy they owned. But Alzheimer's has tapped their lives.
"I couldn't have the clothes I have if I didn't shop for them," she says. She buys at the end of the season when clothes are reduced, getting spring clothes in early fall and fall clothes in early spring.
Robbins says she also is lucky to be healthy, but does make some fashion concessions to age.
She wears a lower heel than she used to "because I'm quick on my feet and I'm afraid of falling." After she applies her makeup in the morning, she scans through a magnifying glass to make sure no cosmetics have gone awry.
Her makeup is not pricey except for the products her daughter in New Jersey sends. On her shelves are jars of Cover Girl makeup base, Pond's cleansing cream and St. Ives "collagen" moisturizer. In the drawer to the back are the unused Lancome and Christian Dior compacts.
"I have friends who spend hundreds, literally, on creams and cosmetics. I swear their skin doesn't look any better," she says. "I never did. I just used what was on the [pharmacy] shelf."
For many senior citizens, though, grooming can become grueling as their bodies grow old.
Arthritic and stroke-weakened arms can't reach to brush the hair or apply makeup. Gnarled hands can't button or zipper without pain and endless trial and error. Hands that tremble can send a streak of lipstick or eyeshadow clear across a cheek.
A little ingenuity can rescue seniors from being entangled in strings and small buttons. Keswick Adult Day Care Center occupational therapist Eileen Hart, 30, says Velcro fasteners have liberated many from the agony of hand movements. (She cautions that fasteners, designed after cockleburs, get a hold of fine fabrics and won't let go. Watch for snags.)
Zipper pulls, basically a long rod with a hook at the end, help. The hook is attached to the small hole in the zipper tab and asks for less dexterity and stretching. Some shirts and dresses have fashionable false buttons that hide easy-to-close snaps or hooks, she says.
"Colors are brighter and fabrics are easier. If you look at fashion and how it's going nowadays, it really helps the older person," says Hart. "Now there are more options."
Fabrics that need ironing are a burden and dry cleaning is expensive for most seniors. Some need clothes that are easy to put on, like front-close clothes or one-piece garments that go easily over the head. Slip-on shoes are easier to maneuver onto feet and don't require tying. And more manufacturers are making ridged, rubber soles that won't slip when you first wear them, Hart says.
Keswick social worker Beth Lebow says she sees prettier fabrics and prints now when she shops for older people. The housecoat has been upgraded, too, with bold prints and easy-care fabrics. Avoiding the dowdy or stoop-shouldered look isn't that difficult, she says, if the senior or a caregiver can shop around.
But a seemingly insurmountable obstacle seniors face is a loss of mobility. Those who's eyesight weakens may be unable to drive. Those who live alone may become housebound by weakness, infirmity or fear. And those who reside with family may feel like a burden to their care-givers.