Humans: Shirley Ashton has no intentions of slowing down

Shirley, who is wearing a blue shirt, poses for a photo. She’s next to a bookcase filled with books and a bright yellow chair.
Shirley Ashton lives in the Wellington West Retirement Community. Photo by Daria Maystruk.

By Daria Maystruk

Living in assisted living hasn’t stopped Shirley Ashton from living a life full of adventures. 

Ashton, 93, spends her days at the Wellington West Retirement Community playing games, attending the knitting club and socializing with other residents.

While Ashton’s travels don’t take her as far geographically nowadays, that wasn’t always the case. Before moving to Ottawa in 2022 to be closer to the care of her son, Ashton spent the majority of her life moving from coast-to-coast.

Born in Quebec, her father’s mail management job meant the family had to move frequently: first to Sault Ste. Marie when she was seven, then to Toronto where she went to university for physio and occupational therapy.

Ashton said she doesn’t know why the degree stood out to her, but she enjoyed meeting new people and helping them.

“I enjoyed it until computers came along because I thought I couldn’t cope with that. So I quit. And to this day, I can’t use a computer because I didn’t learn,” she said with a coy laugh.

Although you may not be able to tell nowadays, Ashton said she had a rather shy disposition growing up, making moving to the big city quite challenging.

“It’s hard making that initial move, and I wasn’t a really outgoing person … It takes a while to get to know people and to get used to it,” she said. “I was a city girl because I lived in the city, but I didn’t know anybody else in the city. So the minute I finished [at the University of Toronto], I decided I was moving on.”

Upon graduating, Ashton picked up her bags one more time to follow a friend to Calgary, where she would work as an occupational therapist in the Veterans Hospital. 

Ashton then began working in Winnipeg as an occupational therapist in a region where there weren’t many others at the time. 

“[The program in B.C.] just had a van and they had a workshop in it. I went out there and spent three weeks with them and they said, ‘Oh, if you’re gonna get a workshop, don’t get something that you’ve got to work all bent over.’”

So she rented a half tonne truck, tall enough to stand in, and began driving to rural communities to offer her care.

After taking a quick hiatus to travel around Europe for six months with a friend from Scotland, Ashton returned to Winnipeg, where she would live most of her life. 

Not only did Ashton see the occupational therapy industry change over time, but she has seen the world change.

“Things have changed for younger people [more] than they did for us. In my generation, you got a job and you usually stayed in the job for most of your life and you ended up with a pension and this and that. The younger generation doesn’t have that today. It’s harder with jobs.”

With all her years of wisdom, Ashton said there are two things she recommends for the younger generation: to travel more and to move into assisted living before you have to in order to get a headstart in building a community there.

“The one thing that I wish I’d done more of when I was working was I wish I travelled in Europe more,” she said. 

Since first calling Ottawa home two years ago, Ashton is adjusting well to the retirement home in the nation’s capital. She said it was hard at first knowing no one but her son and his young kids. 

“He had a family of his own, he had a life of his own — he couldn’t spend it all with me,” she said. “It’s a whole new light, yes. Sometimes it’s a bit hard. But once you get here, you’ve got to make the effort. If you don’t make the effort to get out of your room and to get down and do things, nobody else can do it for you.”

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