Galter LifeCenter’s Oldest Member Never Cancels Pool Time

by Megy Karydes | May 04, 2015
Mary Gallagher never learned how to swim when she was growing up in Bunnacurry, a village in the heart of Achill Island, the largest island off the west coast of Ireland. Now 101-years-old and living on Chicago’s northwest side, she’s in the pool at Galter LifeCenter with her caretaker, Augusta Scescke, two to three times a week.

Mary and Augusta1

Blizzard conditions, a polar vortex and steaming hot days can’t keep Gallagher from her weekly aquatic exercise which, she says, makes her feel healthy.

This kind of stamina and perseverance isn’t atypical for Gallagher. It’s been a part of her DNA her whole life, from growing up and working on her family’s farm, to becoming a housekeeper when she came to the United States and an in-house chef at the Cuneo Mansion. Gallagher retired in 1993.

“She is very determined and has so much perseverance,” says Scescke, who has become Gallagher’s friend, in addition to her caretaker. “I think it has a lot to do with growing up in hard times and wanting to provide not only for herself, but for her family and loved ones.”

Gallagher joined the LifeCenter in 1991, according to her niece, Maureen Gallagher. Although she didn’t know how to swim, she wasn’t afraid to get in the water. “She’s worked hard her whole life,” says Maureen, who quotes her aunt as saying: “I've lasted so long because I will not give up.”

From Ireland to Lincoln Square

Seated in her niece’s northwest side home with her niece, great niece and caretaker, Gallagher loves to tell stories, from recounting how she made it to the United States in 1943 during World War II, to the politicians she supports—and even stories about how to properly make a pot of tea. Gallagher doesn’t let her age or her personality hold her back.

Intent on finding a way to make it to the United States, Gallagher enlisted the help of a friend who asked her employer—U.S Representative Martin Sweeney in Ohio—if he could help Gallagher by sponsoring her. He did and Gallagher arrived by boat to Canada before hitting American soil in 1943 with only 10 pounds to her name.

She secured a job working for Mr. John Cuneo Sr., owner of the Cuneo Mansion, after working as a housekeeper for various households in the North Shore once she arrived in Chicago. She was grateful for the opportunity to work, be independent and send money to her family in Ireland.

Today, Gallagher’s days are filled surrounded by family, following politics, regular visits to Galter LifeCenter’s pool and drinking hot tea with her many nieces, nephews and their children.

A resilient spirit

Gallagher is hard of hearing and can’t see well these days—but that doesn’t stop her. With the help of Scescke, she’s at the west pool in the Water Walkers lane two to three times per week, usually in the early afternoons. “We stay for between 30 minutes to an hour and walk back and forth in the shallow half,” Scescke explains.

Gallagher has tried many other exercises and equipment at Galter LifeCenter but it’s the pool time she loves the most. She believes it’s because water exercise has been the most therapeutic, sustainable and accommodating form of physical activity for her as she's aged.

Gallagher starts her routine by walking back and forth while holding onto the side of the deck and doing stationary kicks in the water. She’ll add neck rolls and arm extensions on occasion. “I think these are the exercises that she has been able to maintain and she does them because they feel good on her body,” Scescke adds. “She really leads herself and I just walk along with her. We usually chat while we're in the pool. I think it gives her peace of mind for me to be in the pool with her in case she needs anything.”

The benefits of exercise among the elderly are well-documented, from cardiovascular health to socialization. According to the National Institute on Aging, one is more likely to stay committed and motivated to an exercise regime when they find exercises they enjoy and feel good doing, as Gallagher has.

Knowing she was support along the way helps. Scescke is always there in case Gallagher needs her as are the Galter LifeCenter pool attendants who they say always lend an extra hand when needed.

“I think she sees the pool as the biggest enjoyment in her life and the anchor of her health and well-being, so she really cherishes being able to continue swimming with me as a helper,” says Scescke. “She also really appreciates the people who regularly help us at the LifeCenter, like Corazón in the locker room and Josh by the pool, among others.”

Keeping her mind sharp, surrounding herself with those who love her and weekly pool time at Galter LifeCenter are all part of Gallagher’s health and wellness plan. And because Gallagher likes to tell it how it is, she’d like to let the good folks at Galter LifeCenter know that she wouldn’t mind it if the pool were just a touch warmer.

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