Betsy Hay talks to me with her special needs dog by her side. She says she is the person her dog needs to be with. That illustrates who Betsy is on a fundamental level – someone who feels compelled to be there when life is hard and considers herself better for the experience. Some people say the problems are too big or difficult. Some people say the problems don’t belong to them. But that is where Betsy has chosen to be, time and time again. She moves into the space of the dismissed and finds a way.

A calling to care for children

In 1968, California passed a law that made child abuse a crime. Betsy became one of the state’s first Child Welfare Workers. She says she fell into the role by accident. I am not sure whether I believe that or not, but either way it was the beginning of a life-long calling. She remembers the experience working in the field as “brutal in the beginning.” Seeing the abuse and suffering took its toll. Most people stayed in the role for six months. Betsy stayed for four years.

She moved from California to Colorado, the single parent of two young boys. For a time, she lived in a small town on the western slope. She became the town librarian and furnished a new library with the help of a grant. After the economy of the town changed, she moved to Denver and attended the DU Graduate School of Social Work. She received a master’s degree and a special child welfare scholarship.

From there she took a job with the Adams County Department of Social Services working in a child welfare role. After two years she had the opportunity to become a therapist working with families with younger members involved with the justice system. “That was my fit and I loved it,” she recalls. “My team used brief solutions-focused therapy and it worked very well. It was awesome to be doing something that helped.”

While working with the families, Betsy started to notice that many of these same kids also had ADHD. As a single parent raising a child with ADHD, she knew how hard it could be. There were no resources at the time for families with a member who has ADHD, so Betsy decided to build them from scratch as a side project. She said, “It took off like wildfire. I had judges, nurses, and pastors – so many people wanted to know about it.” Betsy decided it was a mission she wanted to follow. She took early retirement at 55 and went back to school to get her PhD. Her hope was to start a non-profit. 

A new inspiration: kinship care

Betsy continued her studies, but the path to her goal was not a straight or easy one. After September 11th, 2001, Betsy saw grant money being rerouted to homeland security. Then her son and his two children, ages one and four, came to live with her – both diagnosed with ADHD. She was co-parenting, dealing with ADHD children, going to school, and working as a Graduate Research Assistant. Still, Betsy remembers it as “the best time of her life”.

Betsy realized that what she was actually doing, helping raise her grandchildren, was kinship care. Kinship care is relatives raising relative’s children – or children not their own. Support for people in a kinship care situation became a new focus for Betsy, in addition to ADHD. Sadly, after five years living with her son and grandchildren, Betsy’s son passed away, and her grandchildren went to live with their mother. She shares that it was “an awful, awful time”.

Even though she was still in school, Betsy also started working full-time at a shelter in Aurora. She loved the job. She said, “I was in my 60s and all my coworkers were in their 20s. It was my intergenerational experience. The called me OG Granny.” They became her friends, and she still meets with them for dinner.

When the shelter position ended, she found work supporting kinship families. She said, “It’s a tough situation. Often these people get a call from the police in the middle of the night saying, ‘come get your grandkids or they’ll go into foster care’. They have no preparation.” She found the work fulfilling and after twelve years working to achieve a PhD, she finally reached her goal at the age of 67.

Ageism throws up barriers

But, after a time, Betsy started to experience what she came to understand as workplace age discrimination. After seven years of successful employment, at the age of 68, Betsy was laid off. She says wryly, “I can’t recommend random job hunting at that age. Some companies and people don’t see it, but out in the real world, ageism is an issue.” She applied for four more openings with the same employer and each of the positions went to younger, less qualified applicants. She felt devastated to lose the challenging and rewarding work, as well as the interactions with coworkers who felt like family.

Eventually, she was able to find another position working in kinship care at an organization focused on foster care. Again, she faced barriers based on her age. She said, “I didn’t really feel old, but everyone else did.” She felt like her age was the lens through which she was viewed, no matter the situation, and her decades of experience were no longer considered a benefit.

Never give up on what matters

But Betsy is a fighter and a survivor at heart. Though she was now the one dismissed by society, she was still determined to find a way through. She would find a way to use her skills, abilities, and heart to help people in need – as she had always done. Betsy worked with Experienced Engaged (formerly Boomers Leading Change) to find a fellowship with Hope Communities.  She said, “It was an adventure. I ended up working mostly with refugees from Burma. It was a whole new world for me.” She describes her proudest accomplishment in the role, “I helped a woman get a $10,000 refund owed to her by the IRS. The family had tried for three years and had given up hope. I found a way to work through the bureaucracy and get them the money they were owed.”

Betsy says she never really thought about retiring. Currently, Betsy is working with Jewish Family Service, which delivers food to families experiencing food insecurity. She has over 100 clients and has grown close to them – another family. As always, Betsy looks for new challenges, adventures, and people to help, most recently as a researcher. The prospect of using her decades of experience again is exciting, but for Betsy it’s really all about being of service – for as long as she can.

Read more about other examples like Betsy Hay, who show us what real aging looks like.

Lisa Mackenzie coordinates Community Outreach & Engagement for Changing the Narrative

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