Mary Swantek has always known her vocation in life – working with older adults. As she volunteered at nursing homes and visited her grandfather at his assisted living center, she was continually drawn in by the older people who surrounded her. So it came as no surprise that when she arrived at ACU, her studies combined two of her favorite things: health/fitness and the elderly.
“Since high school, I realized that was my passion and the gift that God has given me – working with older adults,” says Mary, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and an undergraduate certificate in gerontology. “I wanted my future career to be active while I was helping other people be active as well.”
Pruett Gerontology Center
Mary doesn’t confine her passion for gerontology to the classroom, however. From her freshman year on, she has been a student worker in ACU’s Pruett Gerontology Center; she has organized conferences, started the program chapter of Sigma Phi Omega, a national academic honor and professional society in Gerontology; and has learned the ins and outs of running an on-campus program.
“It’s been a really good opportunity to network with different resources in the area,” she said.
While work and school are important to her, Mary also makes time for volunteer efforts. Along with four other ACU students, she has become a volunteer ombudsman, or go-between, for the elderly community of Abilene. She’s been a member of the group since last semester, going to nursing homes every week to listen to the residents’ problems and conflicts and bring them to the administration so that resolution can be accomplished.
“It’s been a good experience,” she said.
Mary also had the chance to participate in a summer internship organized by the National Institute for Fitness and Sports in Indianapolis. For 14 weeks, working 40 hours per week, she examined older adult wellness in the corporate setting, teaching older adults how to use the new exercise equipment installed in their retirement centers. Although the internship was prestigious, it didn’t include housing, so Mary turned to the local churches in the area to find a place to live over the summer. She stayed with two different families, both of whom she called incredibly hospitable and gracious.
“By the end, I felt like I was a part of the church family. I felt right at home,” she said. “God was so gracious.”
One of Mary’s favorite things about working with older adults is the chance to spend time with people who embody living history and who have a rich spiritual heritage and awareness.
“Their openness to share about their lives… I really respect the amount of life they’ve lived and the experiences they’ve had,” she said.
Working with the elderly
One of her biggest challenges is dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s on her older adult friends – but Mary never gives up hope that she can still relate to patients who are going through difficult times.
“Alzheimber’s is really challenging and heartbreaking – and it’s so common,” she said. “But it’s just so cool when you break through into awareness.”
She is also a firm believer that care for older adults needs to include the emotional and the spiritual as well as the physical. Or, as she puts it, “Wellness can’t be achieved without spirituality. It isn’t just physical – it’s mental and emotional and spiritual too.”
That connection between the health of the soul and the health of the body is a key part of Mary’s plans for the future. Although she isn’t sure exactly what she’ll do when she graduates, she knows that it will involve two things: older adults and a ministry of care and healing. Whether she ends up as a health and wellness director for a retirement community or runs an older adults-only retreat, Mary is certain that her mission is to serve as an emissary of goodwill.
“I want to ease things a little bit, lift the worries,” she said.