The Gift of a Lifetime
Most people would heartily agree that Gladys Catlin has earned her retirement. And at age 90, after 57 years of dedicated service to people with disabilities, and with a recently implanted pacemaker to keep her heart going, retirement is the status she just recently – and regretfully – accepted. But only regretfully.
To understand her ambivalence, we’ll need to go back to Christmas Eve, 1964. At around 3 pm that day, Gladys opened her door and welcomed Adam into her home and her heart. At nineteen months old, the toddler weighed only nine pounds, the size of a robust newborn. He had Down Syndrome and developmental disabilities that made his long-term survival doubtful, and he was faring poorly in the state-run institution where he had been since shortly after birth.
For several years, Gladys had been lamenting the loss of the happy chaos of young children around during the day ever since her daughter Marshy and son Eddie (two of her three adopted children) went off to kindergarten and joined their older sister Susanna at school all day. A friend who worked at the old Wrentham State School remarked that she knew of a child there in great need of foster care – and so Adam and Gladys found each other.
One of the first things Gladys noted was that Adam never cried, highly unusual for a young child. But a social worker ruefully explained the deficits of institutional care at the time: Hard as it is to imagine, after months of receiving little or no response to their cries….a baby simply stops trying.
Patiently and creatively, Gladys taught Adam to hold a spoon and feed himself. She purchased plastic spoons 100 at a time, so they wouldn’t miss a beat in their training when one utensil after another fell to the floor. And Adam finally walked at age 13, which Gladys accomplished by coaxing him along in a game where he held one end of a dishtowel and she the other, so she could guide and support him.
And so he grew and thrived. Adam liked doing wooden puzzles with knobs that helped him to pick up the pieces. Above all he loved his toy cars, gleefully opening new gifts each year and carefully examining the colorful new models – before returning to his battered old favorites.
Gladys brushes away the praise when anyone exclaims about her incredible patience, countering that, “No, I’m just determined!” She has been a fierce advocate for Adam through his life, and never accepted the limitations on his abilities that she was told she would need to settle for.
And soon enough, that determination was called upon again when she was asked to foster Mary – another child with Down syndrome and developmental delays who, at age 8, could not yet walk or feed herself. When she brought Mary into her home just four months after Adam, she recalls that social workers gave her another piece of advice that she also completely ignored, a misinformed attempt meant to protect her from emotional investment and disappointment: “Don’t ever love them.” Her incredulous response: “How could I not love these children?”
Fast forward through a very busy few decades for Gladys, and society’s understanding and available services for people with disabilities significantly improved, bringing about programs like Riverside’s Shared Living. Now Gladys had a Riverside case manager to help her obtain crucial supports to further her children’s success. (And it’s no surprise that Riverside named her Foster Mother of the Year in 2002.)
Fast forward again, to 2021. After her second trip to a hospital emergency room (an unsettling experience for her and for Adam as well), it was time to take a long hard look at her age and her own health, and sadly step back.
Adam is in a new home now with a younger guardian, also arranged through Riverside’s Shared Living. Gladys has lost two of her five children (Mary died of her medical disabilities at age 48, and Eddie of congenital heart disease at the same age). She stays active and optimistic, however, and fills her days with activities like crafting teddy bears and dolls for children in need.
She noted that this was the first Thanksgiving without someone under her roof to cook for. But her sights are fixed now on reuniting with Adam, if only for a visit. She hopes that they will be able to spend Christmas Eve together this year. And just like they did in all the years before, they will celebrate their special anniversary with a cupcake and a candle.
Riverside’s Shared Living program matches adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities or acquired brain injury with welcoming individuals or families in their community for long-term in-home placement. The goal is to have the provider family integrate the individual into their home and community life. Riverside is there every step of the way to provide support to both the individual and the family. For more information, please visit riversidecc.org/adult-services/developmental-disabilities/shared-living/