Colleen Hollestelle, MA, LNHA, CMC, Retired School Administrator
At 4 ¾ years old, I was salty about my elementary school not admitting me to kindergarten at the beginning of the new school year. I declared if I couldn’t begin school, I’d show them. I started my own school. I “developed my curriculum” and “set up my classroom.” The classroom was a wooden table that my mom (who was, by no surprise, a teacher) made me on our front porch. My “curriculum” was a series of lessons I crafted from the encyclopedias at home. Every Sunday night I stood on the porch and hollered, “SCHOOL STARTS IN TEN MINUTES. WHO WANTS TO COME TO MY SCHOOL?” The first few weeks, it was me teaching my stuffed animals. Eventually, a new kid came to the neighborhood and walked into my yard and asked, “WHAT ARE YOU YELLING ABOUT?” I brought my voice to a reasonable tone and informed him I had a school, and I’d like him to attend. Without hesitation, he came to my porch and learned my curriculum. In hindsight, I should have assessed his performance on the lessons, but I was so glad to have a student, it didn’t matter.
Fast forward a decade-plus–I fell and hit my head. I was at my first job: the local nursing home. It was the first 20 minutes of my shift. As I walked in, the smell was beyond an odor. It was a fog. As I looked down the hall, there was an amber haze that was more than dust and sunshine. The last thing I remember was entering a woman’s room with my trainer to see an older woman with a soaked gown grab her side rail, pop up and proclaim, “Heyyyy good lookin!” The lights turned on and mine went out. I collapsed on the floor. When I came to, a woman I’ll call “Tammy” was standing above me, “CO-LEAN! Are you ALRIGHT? Wake up! You’re at the nursing home!” It was like one of those moments in a cartoon when the birds and stars are circling your head. Tammy stood me up, dusted me off, grabbed my arm and hissed, “Don’t tell your parents!” I took Tammy’s advice. Eventually, I overcame the shock and horror of what I saw. Not in accepting way, but in a challenge-the-system kind of way–like the 4 ¾-year-old who started her own school.
This was like gasoline on fire along my journey. I challenged the system every chance I had. I questioned processes, I reset visions. I was fearless. As I worked to change the systems, I always reminisced on the first people I worked with who wanted simple things: their favorite song played, their hair dried after a shower, help to make a phone call, a joke, a homegrown tomato, and a funny (mostly true) story. That experience was one of many that shaped my passion for improving services for older adults. While progress has been made, the landscape of aging is more complex. After 20 years, I remained dissatisfied with the current offerings for quality senior and family supports.
People are living longer, yes, but the FORTY YEARS that is “late-life” (60-100 for those still reading this) is more diverse than ever thanks to the variability of the life course experience. What does that mean for aging? It means aging is a challenging matrix of systems and decisions, and it is prudent to have a highly-skilled gerontologist on your side. Forty years is a long time to settle for substandard support. This is why AgingEmpowered exists. “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.” Abraham Lincoln said it; AgingEmpowered makes it happen. School is in session.