Faith and fun, secrets to a long life

Isidora and Jack Shirkey didn’t always have a car while they were raising their three boys in Aurora. Isidora was a stay-at-home mom and Jack a medical technician. But even when finances were tight, they managed to keep date night a priority.

“I used to babysit during the day, all week long, to make money so we could get a babysitter on Saturday night,” Isidora, 100, reminisced from her room at Mullen Home where she has lived the last seven years.

The couple, married in 1941, would take the bus from their home to the University of Denver to watch the Pioneers play hockey, her favorite sport. Another one of their favorite events was the National Western Stock Show. She hasn’t missed a stock show since 1941, she said, including a trip earlier this year.

“I go out more now than I did before I lived here,” she said. “Every day we’re busy here.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate Mullen Home supported by a professional staff and more than 60 volunteers, take residents shopping and to plays and restaurants; as well as surprise them with what Isidora called “mystery trips”—trips where the residents don’t know where they’re headed till they get there. Destinations have included the mountains and churches around the state. They also have activities such as crafts, games, exercise and baking.

“This is a wonderful place,” she said.

“I don’t feel 100,” she added, “heavens no, I feel like I’m 50 or 60.”

Isidora is a member of a small group—just .02 percent of the population, or 55,000 who have celebrated a 100th birthday, according to an April 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Four-fifths are female, most widowed, and 17 percent live in poverty, with a mean retirement income of about $12,200 per year. Isidora is currently the only centenarian at Mullen Home.

The Little Sisters have cared for Denver’s elderly poor at their Highlands location for 95 years. The 10-acre campus includes 17 apartments for independent living, five assisted living units and 42 intermediate nursing care rooms. The sisters live in the home and are available to residents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure attentive care.

“I have everything here!” Isidora said, including the opportunity to continue to live out her faith.

She attends daily Mass at the home’s chapel, a commute that’s much easier than it was growing up in the small town of La Jara outside Alamosa where she was the 11th of 12 children of Ramonacita Gonzalez, an immigrant from Spain, and Encarnacio Romero from New Mexico.

“We’d walk to church with mother every Sunday, four miles, to the great big church in Capulin,” she said, where she and her mother sang in the choir.

“The church had a beautiful marble alter,” she continued, “I wish I could go see it now.”

Her father, a sheep herder, would spend months away at a time. Seven of the couple’s nine daughters became nuns. They prayed the rosary together as a family.

“Every blessed night,” she recalled, “we would kneel down with mother and pray the rosary.”

Today Isidora prays the rosary two or three times a day.

“Mary’s the Mother of God,” she said of her devotion to the Blessed Mother. “She’s my saint, I pray to her all the time.”

She prays mostly prays for her family, she said, her sons Michael and Larry, four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and one on the way—as well as for Jack and her son Terry who have died. And she thanks God for her life and her good health.

“I have no pain,” she said, other than some occasional arthritis in her finger. “I’ve had a great life. I always made sure I had fun, whatever I did and wherever I went, and I have a lot of fun here at Mullen Home.”

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”