Age like Gladys

Susan Donnelly, MSW, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist ( She has earned a reputation for empathy and a sense of humor, and explains that empathy is the ability to walk a bit in someone else's shoes so they might walk further or more easily: "It involves both an aptitude and a commitment. A sense of humor.

Susan is former Chair of the Bergen County Mental Health Board and has held Clinical, Administrative, and Supervisory positions in public and private agencies. In addition to the leadership she has provided to numerous State, County and Regional councils and committees, Susan is a SHARE, INC. volunteer. She welcomes your questions.

I was lucky enough to have 14 aunts and uncles. My favorite by far was my Aunt Gladys, who had me – and everybody else – all figured out. I still have a note from her on my fridge. At age 93 she missed a step at a restaurant, and broke her hip. Give up? Slow down? Not Gladys. Rather she set herself on a rigorous rehab schedule and was walking again in record time. At 97 she was happily settled in assisted living, and got her nails done for the first time. Her reaction? “How could I have lived all this time and not done this? I can’t wait to do it again!”

Gladys had weathered a number of disappointments in her life, including the inability to have children. But she always seemed to be able to find something good or worthwhile to focus on, alongside the hurt. Like getting a manicure. Or getting us cable TV for the first time. How did she do it? How did she keep on keeping on?

Because I’m no Gladys, I’m going to have to guess. First of all, I think Gladys worked to love everyone she could, and she also let others love her. She didn’t insist on perfection in herself or others in order to love. While only part-time, she gave me more than both my parents put together. When in rehab or assisted living, she made it a point to be friendly, kind, and funny, even if she didn’t particularly like the other person. Love and connection gives us a reason to get up in the morning.

Also, I think Gladys made many seemingly insignificant choices throughout her life to face obstacles with a can-do attitude. All those choices build character and courage. Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other takes real courage. This is not always acknowledged by others, so we need to own this in ourselves.

Gladys was genuinely interested in the world around her, whether that be individuals or communities. Being outward- and other-focused helps us to stay grounded when our lives seem upside down or insurmountable.

Last, but definitely not least, Gladys never allowed herself to buy into our culture’s negative stereotypes about aging. This included when she was approaching 100. Like water off a duck’s back, she let stereotypes of aging as inevitable decline and deterioration just slide by. She didn’t take them to heart, or in any way assume they were about her. While it was true she couldn’t do some of the things at 97 that she could do at 37, she focused on what she had learned in those 60 years. And if someone assumed otherwise, she never let that stop her.

It can be difficult not to internalize other’s misperceptions of us, as bias tends to seep in under the doorsills. If we’re mindful, however, it is possible. This is a gift not only to ourselves and other Seniors, it’s a gift to everyone. Wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, there is something we can do every day to make the world a better place.