a hand wearing an engagement ring pats the back of an older woman
Erin Kirkland

The Beauty of Age

Scenes from an all-women’s nursing home

The King’s Daughters Home in Mexico, Missouri, which opened in 1905, still occupies its original building. The nursing home started with 10 beds for women who had never married—nuns and teachers, mostly, who eventually left their assets to the home, adding to its endowment over the years. Today there are 45 beds, still all for women. “Gracious Living for Gracious Ladies,” the website proudly proclaims.

The week that the photographer Erin Kirkland visited King’s Daughters, in June 2019, two residents died. Kirkland wanted to show joy in her images, she told me, but “there was overall heaviness that tinted everything that week.” Some of that heaviness comes through in the resulting work, but so, too, do the women’s resilience and their care for one another. A 98-year-old comforts an 81-year-old with Alzheimer’s, who doesn’t recognize her visiting husband, by reminding her that she does, in fact, know the man in front of her (first image in story). Two women hold hands at the breakfast table (below). Kirkland worked to keep her photographs free of nostalgia, she said. Her aim, instead, was to focus on the present, celebrating the beauty of age.

Right now, because of the coronavirus, visitors are not allowed inside the home. Some women see family through a window, on videochat, or at a distance in the parking lot; others haven’t seen their relatives in weeks. Residents must stay physically separate from one another and most take all their meals in their rooms. Staff members have their temperature taken at the entrance. In an effort to keep spirits lifted, communal TVs play only the Hallmark Channel—no news. And normal daily activities like dancing, bingo, and Bible study—it is a nondenominational Christian home—go on. Darus Love, the home’s administrator, told me his goal is to foster an environment of “compassionate calm” for the duration of the pandemic. “The ladies,” Love said, have “survived much harder times.”