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 Centenarians: The Bonus Years
by Lynn Peters Adler, J.D.

Excerpts Archive

From Chapter 9
The Challenge of Surviving in Today's Complex Society 

 

...At 102, well-known environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas of Coconut Grove, Florida, was still at the work that had been the focus of her life for the past sixty-five years, crusading for the preservation of the Florida Everglades. In her centennial year, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the annual National Parks and Conservation Association award to its 1990 recipient. Named in her honor, the award recognizes others for their outstanding efforts in environmental protection of the country's national parks.

 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas 
Marjory Stoneman Douglas at her home, sharing her views on advanced age. Photograph by Susan Greenwood, 1990


Author of The Everglades: River of Grass, a seminal ecological work, Mrs. Douglas was instrumental in creating the Everglades National Park in 1947. In 1969, she formed the volunteer activist group Friends of the Everglades. She continues to be active in the National Everglades Coalition, in efforts to protect several endangered species, to conserve the coral reefs of Key Largo, and to preserve the historic homes of Coconut Grove. At age ninety-eight, she completed her autobiography, Voice of the River, and began writing a biography of the English naturalist writer William Henry Hudson.

"At 100, I have a sense of achievement and a sense of leisure as well," she said. "I'm not pushed as much as I was. Old age can be more relaxing and more contemplative. I'm enjoying it more than middle age."

For people of advanced age, the heart of the matter of belonging in today's society is that they ought to be able to choose their lifestyle in later years, just as they were free to do when younger, and not be deterred or discouraged from doing so because of their age. If elderly people want to be involved in some aspect of community life or simply to be present at community events and social activities, they should be made to feel welcome and invited to participate to the extent they desire and that is possible for them. This is a moral imperative to be acted upon by society and individuals alike, on behalf of these deserving citizens who have contributed and been a part of so much of the greatness of America.

From Chapter 7

Challenges to Physical Health


When he was eighty-five, Oscar Wilmeth decided he wanted to live to be 100. He had already survived a near-fatal accident in his eightieth year. He was driving on a high mountain road in the Colorado Rockies, on the last leg of a 10,000 mile solo motor trip around the country, when, he recalled, "I blacked out and went off the road and down into a ravine!" It was hours before help arrived. "The doctors gave me up for dead and called in my family from California. But I fooled 'em."

Oscar Wilmeth celebrates age 100
Oscar Wilmeth achieves his goal of living to be 100.
Photograph by Laurette Alexander.


After undergoing multiple surgeries to mend his broken bones, he spent several months doing intensive physical therapy because he had to learn to walk again. Once out of the hospital, he bought another car, promising his worried son he'd be careful. "The altitude got me, that's all," he insisted.

At ninety, Oscar suffered a heart attack. Once again, he was not expected to survive, but he did. He was given a pacemaker. He learned about exercising and eating right. In fact, after his heart attack, he changed his diet completely, giving up sugar, chocolate, and fried foods — which he had always loved — in favor of a low-fat diet.

For a while, Oscar lived on his own. He kept active and exercised regularly. Then at the age of ninety-seven, he had a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed on his right side. Physical therapy enabled him to regain much of his former functioning, but he had to make some adjustments, such as giving up driving. Finding it hard to write by hand, he taught himself to type on a portable electric typewriter, which he used to keep up with his correspondence of dozens of letters a month to family and friends. He also began typing his autobiography — in anticipation of his 100th birthday: "Looking back over the years of my life, I would say that maintaining one's health is the most important thing to do with one's life. All too often we put it aside to earn a living or to care for others. I've been lucky. But not everyone can depend on luck or good genes to get them through to a "ripe, old age!" I think it's wonderful to see younger people taking such an interest in health and exercise and diet. I'm all for it— for people of all ages. It's never too late to take good care of yourself!"

Oscar began planning his centennial celebration when he turned ninety-eight. He booked the ballroom at the local Hilton and invited more than 200 people. At ninety-nine, however, he came down with pneumonia and began to worry if he would reach his goal. So he moved into a small group home, where he had a room of his own and his meals were provided. A nurse's aide was in attendance day and night. Oscar bought an oxygen tank and mask to keep handy in his room when he had difficulty breathing; he also bought two new hearing aids and a hand-held device that increased the volume on the television so he could watch his favorite programs. His eyesight failing, Oscar went from bifocals to trifocals. As he said: "I did everything I could to take care of myself and tried to get information on the latest developments in vitamins, and all those newfangled devices to help with functioning, short of a wheelchair — I draw the line there.

All in all, it's a pretty good time to be old. There are so many medical miracles nowadays that help keep people alive, such as my pacemaker, and so many new ways of diagnosing disease and then being able to cure it early on before it really takes hold. We're never as young as we used to be, but we can stay in pretty good shape for the shape we're in when we're old, if we work at it and take advantage of all the miracles out there. And they are miracles to me because I remember when I was young growing up on a farm and my grandfather came to live with us. He was old and there was nothing anyone could do for him except make him comfortable. He died of old age, the doctor said. Today we don't have to settle for that. We can get a diagnosis and try to fix the ailment a lot of times. But you have to ask for it sometimes. You just can't be complacent. I remember when I was still in my seven-ties, I complained to my doctor that I had a pain in my leg; he said it was just old age. I told him that my other leg was just as old and asked how come it didn't hurt. I found another doctor who treated me for the arthritis in my leg. That's what you have to do-you have to make sure you get the medical attention and not just let anyone pass it off to 'old age' and give up on you."

On his 100th birthday, Oscar was triumphant. He greeted each of his 200 guests and spoke to them on and off for four hours, giving the highlights of his life. When he cut his birthday cake, he jokingly introduced a woman sixty years his junior, a personal friend whom he called upon to share in this ceremony, as his girlfriend. "That shook things up a bit," he said, chuckling.

From Chapter 4:
The American Experience 

Centenarian Ola Canion had it right when she remarked during an oral history taping, "Why, heck, I don't remember exactly — it was around 1905!" Ola was being questioned about what year an historical event occurred. And then she went on to chide the interviewer, "That was eighty-five years ago. I'll bet you can't remember the exact dates of some things that happened twenty-five years ago. Besides, it's not important — you can go look that up. What I'm telling you is the background of what went on at that time, and that I do remember. And that's what you can't find in a history book!"

 
Ola Canion at 100, in her mother's dress, shawl and bonnet from 1905. Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Garske Center, Phoenix, AZ. Photograph by Don B. Stevenson.


Ola adds flavor to her account of the family's migration from one state to another by telling how she and her family traveled from Texas to southern Arizona in a covered wagon in the early years of this century. "We children, and the women, had to walk most of the way," she says, "to make room for our possessions and to save on the horses. But whenever we went through a town, my father told us to get in the wagon so the townsfolk wouldn't think badly of him for making us walk. I was mad at this, though, because I had my mind set that I was walking all the way from Texas to Arizona. Since I was the oldest, I refused to get in with the others, and so today I can say that I walked all the way. No, I don't recall the year exactly-it was around 1905," she quips.

On special occasions, Ola wears her mother's dress and bonnet worn on that journey.

What centenarians and others of advanced age have to say makes history dynamic by preserving personal insights of events, people, and places. Their recollections make the past come alive, as alive as the person speaking. In the process, it creates a more memorable piece of history. Centenarians are able to push recollections of history back at least another generation by relating stories they heard, firsthand, from their parents, uncles, and aunts. Sometimes their recollections go back even further to their grandparents' experiences in the mid-nineteenth century, from stories they enjoyed as youngsters and remember still.


Challenges to The Mind

I wish medical science would come up with a way for people
to age with their minds intact.
— Helen Cope, 101 Greenwich, Connecticut

The most fundamental and frightening loss that can be encountered as one ages, elders tell us, is losing the ability to think, remember, and reason. As Mary Gleason, at 101, puts it, "I can live with the loss of my sight, and if my hearing goes, well, so be it—as long as I can keep my marbles—that’s the most important thing."

Mildred Reiger would concur. She and her twin sister, Adeline Moran, turned 100 on April 11, 1993. "My eyesight is troublesome," Millie says. "I can hardly see anything on TV anymore. I can take care of myself and I still go to the Senior Citizens Friendship Club and go out as often as I can. But my sister just sits in a chair now; she has slipped a lot since our birthday. We have someone who lives with us to take care of her."

Millie finds it strange that she and her twin should be so different now. With relish, she repeats the family story of their birth: "No one knew our mother was expecting twins, so we were a real surprise. The doctor delivered me and carried me out to the kitchen to hand me over to my aunt. Going back to tend to my mother, at the doorway he exclaimed, ‘There’s another one!’ My sister was already lying on the bed. We are five minutes apart. We have always enjoyed being twins." Millie continues, "We have had a wonderful life. For the past thirty years, we have lived together in Addie’s home in Evanston, Illinois. It’s so sad to see Addie like this now. I don’t think she even recognizes me anymore."

It is indeed puzzling how some people can remain alert and mentally functional for 100 years, and more, while others, even a twin or other sibling, may not. It is generally accepted that some mental slowing and changes do occur as a person ages. Lately, however, it is evident through scientific research and observations of older people themselves that total mental incapacity is not the inevitable companion of old age. Rather, severe mental incapacity is a consequence or result of disease or some other medical problem.

In his book Aging Well, Dr. James Fries of Stanford University Medical School notes that most of the time the slowing down in reaction and response times associated with aging is benign and of little practical importance unless one becomes unduly preoccupied with the changes and "dwells on it." That is unnecessary, he contends, and only makes things worse. Our brains are incredibly sophisticated and powerful, and it is foolish to think of them

as though they were simply some form of long-life battery that follows a uniform path of decline. In the absence of disease, the capacity to learn new things and new skills and the ability to be creative is always there. So, too, are inspirational exam-ples of centenarians (and others of advanced age) who are proving this to be true.

Demonstrating that one is never too old to learn, Centenarian Selma Plaut made the news when she received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto. Mrs. Plaut, who fled Nazi Germany, even-tually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. In her seventies, she moved to Toronto to be near her son. At age eighty-eight, she began auditing classes of interest to her in theology, Jewish history, and French. She did so well that she decided to take further classes for credit and to work toward a degree. Although she was short a few credits, the university awarded her the degree in commemoration of her centennial; she graduated in June with the class of 1990—100 years from her birth.

Selma Plaut, age 100

Selma Plaut, age 100, and Sadie Lewis may be separated by 78 years, but they joined together in receiving degrees at the University of Toronto.

Photograph by M. Slaughter, used with permission from the
Toronto Star.


On Physical Mobility

… We are physically fit when we have the heart and lung (aerobic) capacity to pump oxygen to the muscles, sufficient muscle strength to accomplish reasonable tasks, and flexibility in the joints to permit movement. When it comes to maintaining physical mobility, the simple axiom "use it or lose it" says it all.

… In New York City, former professional dancer Milton Feher has also developed a combination of exercise, relaxation, and dance that he has been teaching for almost fifty years. Milton was forced to retire from the Broadway stage in 1941 due to arthritis in his knees. "It happened all of a sudden," he tells. Milton’s very successful career, performing in such popular shows as Song of Norway and I’d Rather be Right by George M. Cohan, was cut short in its prime by the affliction that limits so many older people. "I then developed a way to cure myself after I gave up on doctors," he explains, "and I’ve been teaching people of all ages ever since. The concept is to relax into a straight line and to keep the body centered. The problem people have, and the reason so many older people fall, is that people are moving their weight off their feet. The key is to always feel that your body is resting on your feet and not let it get away from you. It sounds simple, but it takes concentration and practice."

Milton’s star pupil, Claire Willi, 100, credits his work with her over the last thirty years to getting her to the century mark. "There are two things that older people fear most," she confides, "falling apart and falling down. Exercising regularly, learning how to use one’s body correctly, in balance, and using relaxation techniques improve flexibility and coordination and help with both. Exercise keeps you younger, no matter what your chronological age," Claire says with certainty, and from experience.

At age seventy, Claire, who emigrated from Switzerland almost fifty years earlier, felt old. She never exercised, tired easily, and never walked for pleasure because her feet hurt when she did. She was starting to stoop and shuffle her feet when she moved and used a small pillow under her dress to hide her swayed back. A beautiful woman, Claire minded the changes that age was bringing. She had led an exciting life, happily married to one of the largest champagne dealers in New York and was a celebrated hostess. Her career, she says, was helping her husband by entertaining and running their personal life, managing their schedules and their three homes in Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York. It bothered her tremendously that at seventy she felt like an old woman and beyond hope.

Quite coincidentally, while in a health food restaurant in her neighborhood near Carnegie Hall, she overheard a waitress tell another customer about the marvelous dance lessons she was taking, which not only invigorated her and improved her posture but also relaxed her. "My ears perked up at this," Claire recalls.

She made her way to the Milton Feher School of Dance and Relaxation on West Fifty-eighth Street, located in an apartment building she could see from her building. There, above the din of city traffic, she began attending classes three times a week plus some individual lessons. Claire has been a regular student ever since. She attributes Milton’s training to what now keeps her healthy, beautiful, and graceful at age 100. She wears a leotard and leggings and her body is trim and shapely. Claire and Milton, an octogenarian, have been featured in numerous magazines over this last decade as a true success story, including Prevention Magazine (January, 1992) in an article entitled "Dance Away Arthritis Pain!"

"Claire has succeeded in staving off the loss of mobility that so often accompanies advanced age. She keeps up with people half her age in the one-hour dance class, and afterward, as has been her practice for these thirty years, she takes a long walk in Central Park," Milton tells. Claire advises, "It’s never too late to begin."


HOW OLD WOULD YOU BE IF YOU DIDN’T
KNOW HOW OLD YOU WAS?—Satchel Page

There seems to be a current consensus among lay people and experts alike that, given reasonably good health, feeling old is largely a state of mind, making the quote from Satchel Page, the ageless baseball hero, prophetic. Ever so many people at 100 and over say they don’t feel old in their minds and in their spirits. Mature, yes—in the sense of years lived and wisdom acquired and experience garnered—but not old in the sense of being worn out and used up.

Such a large number of centenarians say they do not consider themselves old that there must be something here for us to appreciate. Certainly, everyone’s physical appearance and ability changes with the years; this fact of life, no doubt, contributes to the negative individual and societal conventions surrounding old age. Often not taken into account, though, because it is not readily apparent or discussed, and usually not revealed unless one gets to know people who have lived a long time, is the encouraging and equally important fact that a person’s inner self — one’s spirit — does not necessarily grow old, or age in keeping with one’s chronological years or appearance.

"Perhaps people should be given an individual choice of when they would like to be considered old or a senior citizen," offers Billy Earley. She continues to declare, "I don’t feel old and I don’t think of myself as old (in a negative sense) at 105." Billy’s viewpoint is a frequent refrain heard from active centenarians who insist that a person’s inner self does not have to keep up chronologically with one’s physical years. As one centenarian confided, "Over the years, I would be surprised when I would unexpectedly catch a glimpse of myself in a store window while passing or in a mirror to see that I looked older; but inside I felt about the same.
I did not feel my chronological age, and I still don’t. I feel young inside. There are times when I think to myself that I don’t feel my age, and then I wonder, ‘Well, what age do I feel?’ I’ve determined it’s around thirty.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt like fifty." Adds Billy, "To my mind, I’m sometimes thirty, fifty, or sixty. On bad days, I may feel like seventy, but whatever, I do not feel 100 years plus."

 Billy Earley on her excise bike

Billy Earley at home on her exercise bicycle.
Photograph by Tina Romano. Photo courtesy of Billy Earley.


Centenarians tell their stories:

Centenarians talk about what life was like before the invention of the radio, television and motion pictures; for home entertainment, they relied on reading, social gatherings with neighbors and friends, storytelling and reading out loud to each other, singing, playing piano and playing games. They speak of the excitement of the times, as innovations in communication and entertainment became a part of their daily lives — their own "Age of Enlightenment," as Louis Kelly (103, of Scottsdale, Arizona) dubbed it. "The beginning of the radio in the late 1800s began the revolution in communications," he says with certainty.

"The first radios I recall were called crystal sets. They were introduced about 1901 and you could build them yourself if you were handy. The vacuum tube, which made radios able to be mass produced, had not yet been invented. Early ‘crystal’ receivers, as they were called, operated without electricity or batteries, and the signals they picked up were very weak. If someone had one, however, all the neighbors would gather around at night. The operator, usually the owner and builder, used a crystal detector, which was a metal wire coming into contact with a metal sulfide crystal, to pick up the signal — that is, try to pick up the signal. They were very fickle. Sometimes you could spend the whole evening searching for one and give up, disappointed." Still, many centenarians remember the thrill of hearing a voice from miles and miles away coming through the headphones when the signal was picked up.

The early radio programs were mostly music: dance orchestras, such as the Cliquot Club Eskimos playing popular music of the time, lively and with a catchy beat, centenarians recall. The first electric radios came out after World War I. A popular program was the dance orchestra, the A and P Gypsies in 1923. By the end of the 1920s, pro-grams were more sophisticated and included drama hours, such as the "Eveready Hour" and "Great Moments in History". In 1928, there was the "Music Appreciation Hour" over the Blue Network with Walter Damrosch, which was very popular, centenarians say. The only other was called the Red Network.

"When we were young, the moon was an image for romance and love songs and nursery rhymes," Louis muses. "Imagine seeing men walking on that moon, brought to us through the miracle of technology. It’s amazing — ‘awesome’ as my college student great-grandson would say. I think it’s the most incredible thing I’ve witnessed in all these 100 years. And brought right into our living rooms through television." 

 

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1998-2013 National Centenarian Awareness Project & Lynn Peters Adler, J.D.
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