Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Facing the inevitable

I'm on the last chapter of a book I've enjoyed a great deal: If I Live to be 100, published in 2002 by Neenah Ellis. She was formerly a staff producer for National Public Radio's All Things Considered and is now a freelance reporter and producer. The link above will take you to a short description of the book and of each of the centenarians she interviewed.

 In 1997, Neenah got a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do a radio series about the twentieth century. She decided to talk to centenarians and ask them about their lives, which would encompass the entire century. In 2000, she did a series on NPR's Morning Edition based on these interviews. And then she wrote the book for those of us who missed the radio show. Most of the people in the book lived alone or in assisted living, but all of the ones she interviewed, even one at the age of 117, are all "there" upstairs. I think now, in 2010, I can assume that all of them (okay, most) have moved on.

I don't know about you, but one of the scariest parts of facing old age is this: dementia, Alzheimer's, the loss of cognitive ability. I already feel this at 67. Forgetting names, having a word on the tip of my tongue but not being able to access it, these little annoyances are now part of my everyday existence. But these centenarians give me hope that a long life does not necessarily equate with madness.

I remember long ago hearing a quote from George Orwell: "At age 50, every man has the face he deserves." Well, what about at 100? If you live that long with all your faculties, your face, man or woman, has a sameness about it. Of course there are wrinkles and no teeth (or a whole lot fewer teeth), because I don't think the human body is designed to last much longer than 80, or (at most) 90 years, but gender differences seem also to have moved into the past.

In reading the book, one thing kept jumping out at me: how every single one of these centenarians has learned to live for the moment, and most of them are truly happy individuals, even with all the physical ills they deal with. Two of these centenarians are married to each other, Sadie and Gilbert Hill. A quote from the book (p. 103):
The researchers at the New England Centenarian Study say the odds of a married couple both making it to one hundred are six million to one. Sadie and Gilbert are maddeningly nonchalant about their incredible feat. "It just kind of caught us standing still," says Gilbert.
They live alone, do all their cooking and shopping together. Neither of my parents made it out of their sixties. I guess it's true that picking your parents is the best way to ensure a long life. Until I read this book, I was just not sure I even wanted to live that long. So for now, I'll try to eat right, keep exercising, and hope for the best. Will I still be blogging at 100?


  1. I can't begin to imagine living until 100. Not because of any physical limitations, but because I am an opinionated old broad at the age of 58. I have a hard time now understanding the changes in society - the rudeness and crudeness. I hate to think of how things will be in another 40 years. It would send me over the edge trying to deal with it. I don't think I am capable of being like those centenarians and 'being truly happy'. Something would aggravate me.

  2. I hope so!!!

    I took care of a lot of folks in their 90's when I ran the Assisted Living facility...they were still with it and vibrant...it made me think of 70 year olds as youngsters...I want to make 106....wish me luck!!

  3. Wow... I guess I will take whatever I am given. My grandmother lived until she was 98 and most of her sisters beat that. The oldest was 104 but she had dementia so I don't think she noticed.

  4. I'm in agreement with you, the idea of Alzheimer's and dementia and such is the scariest part of the idea of aging. I happen to think that the human body is meant to last quite a bit longer than it does if it were properly maintained. Not that I have any room to comment on that considering how I've treated my body in the past.

    I read your blog and wonder at your vivacity now; I'm certain that you will remain active at everything, including blogging!

  5. It's definitely Alzheimer's that frightens me - it's conceivable to live with physical pain and discomfort, but the thought of someone having to take care of my physical shell makes me crazy. My mother died at age 43, and my father at 64, so the fact that my next birthday is #64 is encouraging. I liked the quote about the couple "standing still" - truly amazing! Great post and good addition to the 'ol reading list!

  6. A bigger question is will there still be blogs when you're 100, or will we just communicate telepathically through chips in our brain? :)

  7. Kate may be onto something...there have been so many changes in the past 40 years..who knows what the future will bring!

  8. Well, if there are blogs, I hope we're all able to be blogging! I too fear Alzheimer's, but I embrace as many moments here and now as I can.

    About twenty years ago I remember thinking, "I'll be dead before my first book is published."

    Now I think, "I wonder how old I'll be when my last book is published?"

    One of my favorite quotes goes something like this: Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, rather by the moments that take your breath away."

  9. I've met folks in their nineties who could run circles around people much younger than they were. Their minds were quite sharp. With the advances in medicine and technology who knows? I think if we take care of our bodies and exercise our brains with new ideas we stand a pretty good chance of living longer than our parents and grandparents.

    The quote Jan left above is one of my favorites. I want to live for the moments that take my breath away.

  10. There is a flip side to being "all there" and it's what we're experiencing in our family right now. Both my grandparents are still alive and living together in a nursing home. He is 94 and she is 93. They've been married for 73 years. Grandma is mentally all with it and that really is the bad news in her case. She is so frail, 53 pounds, can't talk, walk, chew, and sit up in a chair and the bad news is that she is aware of how bad she is and wishes to die and doesn't. Grandpa on the other hand is in his own little world and is as happy as can be. He sings out loud and reads the newspaper to anyone that will listen, over and over again because he can't remember what he just read. His goal used to be to see his great grandchildren graduate from high school. That was 10 years ago. Now his new goal is to make it to at least 100. We're pretty sure he'll make it. He has no disease and takes no medication. We are to the point now that we are praying for Grandma to now leave to meet God. She's too aware of how miserable she is here.
    Anyway, I'll have to get this book. I would be very interested in it.
    Didn't mean to go on and on, but as usual, DJ, we happened to be sort of on the same wave length today.

  11. I remember those interviews on NPR in 2000 and thought that the book would be great. I need to see if they have it at the library. One of my ex co-worker called me today – we had not talked in almost 2 years – and we chatted about what we had been doing. He told me that he took a cruise with his wife and mother not long ago – 3 weeks – and his mother is 90; she was not as tired as he was. I think blogging is a way to keep us alert – reading, thinking, writing, etc. There is a pediatrician in Roswell (near where I live) a Dr. Denmark, who was still practicing at 103 years old. She should be 112 on 1st February. Actually I just checked and there is a story on her in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leila_Denmark She is a “supercentenarian.”


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