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Growing Elder

Large black and white tree

Boab Tree Near Wyndham by Rachel Newling

I thought a lot about Gladys’s comment, secretly hoping I could avoid dying from the head down or the feet up…

“I’m an elder-in-training,” I heard myself declare at the tender age of 32. I had no idea what eldership really meant—how could I? Still, I felt a quiet yearning stir inside me to be one. At the time, I was working as an assistant activities director for a large Catholic retirement community, getting my first up-close look at institutionalized living for the aged. Although about half the population was there by choice, many had run out of other options, and I often found myself feeling overwhelmed by the isolation and quiet despondency of those I served. Ultimately, I found the most loving activities I could offer them were touch and deep listening. I’ll never forget Gladys, a wickedly sharp-witted 94-year-old resident who confided to me, “You die either from the head down or the feet up.” She was definitely in the latter group, as her exquisite mind ruefully observed her bedridden body waste away. Blind and weighing no more that 80 pounds, Gladys confined herself to her room. Most of my other clients were in the “head down” camp, their bodies housed in a locked ward due to their tendency to wa …

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