Changing Aging Assumptions

How a Catholic nun has changed how we look at aging

...by Keri Pollock | Sep 1, 2017, 8:33 p.m.
87-year-old Sister Madonna Buder of Spokane competes in Ironman Triathlons. She is giving the closing keynote address of this year's UW Elder Friendly Conference, September 14-15 in Lynnwood

As someone who has worked in the field of aging for over 20 years, I’ve had the good fortune of interacting with many older adults. Each, including my parents, has taught me a lesson in how to age with humor, purpose and, in some respects, prevention.

They have all been role models in how to simply live life: in good health or with chronic health conditions including Alzheimer’s; with no worries about money or under challenging financial circumstances; single, as part of an aging couple or moving forward after the loss of a partner. These relationships have taught me lessons about being open to new adventures, working after the traditional retirement age, contributing to community in meaningful ways and having fun in the process.

In my work as the UW Elder Friendly Futures Conference co-chair, I recently got acquainted with one person who serves as a particularly energizing, inspiring and powerful example of living life with humor and purpose: Sister Madonna Buder of Spokane.

Sister Madonna will give the closing keynote address at this year’s conference, The Essential Work of Caregiving Across Communities (see below for more information).

You may know Sister Madonna better as “The Iron Nun,” a Catholic sister who has competed in over 45 Ironman triathlons. Sister Madonna is a legend among her fellow triathletes, but she became known to the general public through the Nike television advertisement entitled “Unlimited Youth” that ran during the 2016 Summer Olympics. An Ironman triathlon is one of a series of long distance races consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile marathon run, raced in that order and without a break.

Sister Madonna has loved the outdoors her entire life, but she didn’t start running until she was 48. Inspired by a priest leading a retreat on the Oregon Coast who encouraged attendees to consider running as a way to balance mind, body and soul, she ran for the first time in a pair of borrowed sneakers.

As Sister Madonna shares in her book, The Grace to Race, “part of the joy I found when I first started running was the chance to get out in nature. To this day, my problems seem to shrink when surrounded by God’s Creation.”

What started out as a meditative and prayerful practice also became an opportunity to accomplish a mission through running. Sister Madonna often uses running and triathlons as a vehicle to raise awareness about and funds for research for causes such as multiple sclerosis, breast cancer and diabetes. After she read about a race called the Troika in her local newspaper, Sister Madonna began training for and participating in triathlons. She approached this with an attitude of “Well, I’ve done the epitome of foolishness by engaging in the marathon at my age, so what the heck, why not try this, too?” When it comes to training, Sister Madonna is unconventional. Her goal is to make it joyful. She also uses daily tasks as an opportunity to challenge herself physically.

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