A Life in Motion

By Jordan Bailey

Shirley Wittleton’s story is a vivid tale of resilience and passion. A spirited grandmother living in Ballina, New South Wales, Shirley’s story is filled with vigorous sports, committed caregiving, and loving family adventures. As a young woman she excelled in sports and fitness, enjoying the thrill of the competition and the joy of shared experiences with her family. Later, she dedicated herself to a career in aged care, driven by a desire to help those unable to help themselves. Throughout her life, Shirley has needed to adapt to the passing of time- from the bustling social scenes and physical activity of her youth to serene swims and gentle walks in her golden years. Her journey is not just a personal story but a testament to her incredible adaptability and inner strength.

Shirley’s life has always been marked by vitality and vigour; a trait vividly displayed in her younger days before family responsibilities would shift her focus. She cherished her evenings at Lismore City Hall, where live bands would fill the venue with music that she and her friends could lose themselves in. They would often preface these evenings by going to local cafés, where Shirley would enjoy a nice milkshake. Alongside these lively social outings, Shirley revelled in bicycle rides across Ballina with her group of friends, exploring every corner of the town until dusk would signal her need to be home. She also had a lifelong love of the ocean and would frequently spend her days swimming at the beach.

This spirit of adventure would carry into her later years when Shirley passionately engaged in sports of all kinds, but particularly squash. She thrived on the competition, especially enjoying mixed gender events, where she could beat male opponents, finding great satisfaction in her victories. Her children, frequently by her side at the courts, absorbed her enthusiasm for physical activity. They too would adopt active lifestyles, involving swimming, cycling and various sports. She would also share her love of the ocean with them, with many afternoons and weekends spent in the cool water of the nearby beaches. Together, they relished beach outings and hikes, exploring nature and enjoying the physical engagement. Family outings were an essential part of Shirley’s life. These adventures, done on a budget, were rich in experiences. The family would often take trips to Sydney, exploring new beaches and the lively city, fostering a sense of closeness that Shirley cherished.

As a young girl, Shirley Wittleton dreamed of being a nurse. Caring for her chronically ill mother as well as her younger brother for much of her teenage years planted a desire in her to help others. Unfortunately, these dreams needed to be set aside, initially to take care of her childhood home and then later due to her marriage and having children at a young age. With her oldest being born at nineteen, she would have three children by the age of twenty-three. However, fortune would smile on her. In her thirties, with her children now at school, Shirley heard about a job available to work with aged care dementia patients. She didn’t know much about much about dementia. She didn’t have much in the way of qualifications or experience. What she did have was a passion for helping others and confidence. So, she walked in, told the boss that she could do it, and walked out with the job. Shirley would continue to work with aged care and dementia patients for the rest of her professional career, pursuing her pushed aside education and earning her qualifications while on the job. Her time there would coincide with one of the first ever government grants to give people with dementia an alternative to a nursing home, allowing for their more specialised needs to be met. Looking back, Shirley recalls how difficult it was working with these patients and seeing the toll that their condition could take on them and the people who loved them, but she also remembers how rewarding it was helping them. Working with them is among the things she is most proud of in her life.

Recently, Shirley was forced to say goodbye to her younger brother, Ray. Having struggled with Huntington’s Disease, a rare brain disorder that causes cognitive and physical decline, for years, he made the choice to end his life with dignity. At Hornsby Hospital earlier this year, he underwent Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) after saying goodbye to all the most important people in his life. Shirley says that she found it amazing he was allowed to choose, as he was the first person at Hornsby that had undergone the process.

Now at the age of seventy-four, Shirley’s life has slowed down considerably. Diagnosed with osteoarthritis at forty, her physical activities transitioned from competitive sports and hikes to gentle walks, though her love of the water and swimming persists, with morning often finding her either walking along the beach or swimming in the pool. While the scale may have changed, she remains a very physically active person, especially after two joint replacements that she says, while painful, greatly increased her quality of life. Professionally, Shirley retired after more than thirty years working within hostels and nursing homes. Even after retiring, she would continue to volunteer in hostels, assisting the Diversional Therapists by taking residents out for walks and reading to them. As she looks to the future, Shirley has plans- perhaps quieter than the adventures of her youth but no less filled with anticipation. She plans to travel across Australia soon with a close friend, exploring new places and seeking new experiences. She takes her caring spirit and pours it into watching over her grandchildren, helping them to learn and grow.