Living to 100: the key is to be emotionally strong

THERE are many theories floating around about why some people live a long life – especially those who make it to the magic 100.

Anne Perry shows her card from the Queen, Picture by David Harvey
Anne Perry shows her card from the Queen, Picture by David Harvey

Just google How to live a long life and you will find a myriad of theories from various sources.As a suburban journalist, I have interviewed countless centenarians, some still caring for themselves and others in nursing homes. They have ranged from those still physically active to those bed-bound but still with sharp minds. Some are so hard of hearing, we have to communicate through a relative.  All have led interesting, full lives, in so many different ways. Even those in nursing homes tend to have been there only for a few years, having cared for themselves until well into their nineties.

One woman I met was a sprightly 102 year old, still teaching old-fashioned dancing at a local hall, which she had been doing since she was a young woman. Needless to say, she was a walking – or rather, dancing – legend. Sadly, her interview with me was her last hurrah – she died suddenly, after a short illness, shortly afterwards.

Most of the centenarians I have met have been women, who tend to live longer than men, but when you do find a 100-plus year old man, he can be remarkable, looking after himself better than younger men.

There was one man I met who lived alone in a spotless apartment and went out regularly for lunch with his mates. If you saw him, in his immaculate suit, sitting with his friends in a restaurant, laughing and enjoying the food and company, you could easily think he was in his seventies or eighties. He liked to read the newspaper every day and could talk about current affairs. He also was much-loved by his family.

It is getting to the stage where living to 100 years is not that remarkable, but they remain newsworthy because people like reading about these wonderful people.. When I was a young journalist 30 years ago, it was more unusual to find someone who had lived  that long. We used to joke that we hoped they were still alive by the time our weekly newspaper hit the streets.

An apple a day kept the doctor away from Edna Spurway, descendant of Maria Granny Smith who grew the first Granny Smith green apple. Edna lived to 101.
An apple a day kept the doctor away from Edna Spurway, descendant of Maria Granny Smith who grew the first Granny Smith green apple. Edna lived to 101.

So, what is the “secret”‘ of living to 100? It is the first question we journalists ask centenarians. It is a silly question, really, but it is a good starting point. Some don’t know how to answer – their long life is as much a mystery to them as to others. They may be the first in their families to live to such a great age. Sadly, some have outlived their children who died at the more “normal” age of 80-something. That in itself is incredible.

The centenarians I have interviewed vary from those who have been physically active all their lives to the more overweight who confess to a love of chocolate and liquor – in moderation of course.

But I have concluded that there are a few common factors in these people’s lives. I have listed five here, not necessarily in order:

1. Stoicism during bad times. That does not mean they are blind optimists. They expect life to have highs and lows and “roll with the punches” – while appreciating the good times, they can take life’s low points on the chin. They have lived through two world wars, the Depression, deaths of children, spouses and friends and all the natural low points any of us have throughout life;

2. Purpose in life. They seem to be confident of their place in the world, no matter how insignificant that seems to others. That does not mean they have not been ambitious – they can achieve great things, but I feel that those who have toiled in lowly jobs are as happy, if not happier than the long-lived who have achieved high financial success.

3. Religious faith. Sorry, all you atheists out there, but, from the many 100 year olds I have met, having at least some religious belief  has helped sustain them through tough times. Not all are regular worshippers but most would say they believed in God and the tenets of their religion.

4. Strong family and friendship network.  There  is no doubt that having a family network, immediate and extended family, is important for emotional well-being, and often practical help, especially with the passing years. Friends are equally important, for the same reasons, and some would say more important as people tend to confide more in friends  than they do in family. There can be tensions in families as well. As they say, you can choose your friends but not your family. Strong friendships with a few steadfast buddies is so important, even vital, for a healthy old age.

5. Service to others.  Most, if not all of the centenarians I have interviewed have done some sort of charity work in their advanced age – some even still managing to do some at 100. That could include volunteering at hospitals or charities, even for a few hours a week. Volunteer work at any age gives people a sense of satisfaction because they are helping others, as well as companionship.


The latest 100 year old I have interviewed is a woman I have known for almost half of her life – my best friend Naomi’s mother Anne Perry. I was very privileged to be at Anne’s recent 100th birthday afternoon tea, attended by her loving family, including cousins, and many friends who have been part of her life for years. Although frail and in a nursing home, Anne knew what was going on as she has remained sharp-minded. She was especially chuffed to receive a card from Queen Elizabeth as well as other dignitaries.

Anne is the epitome of the stoic woman of her generation. Born in India of British heritage, when the sub-c0ntinent was ruled by Britain, Anne Blewitt’s life was privileged in many ways, even though even her family was affected by the Depression. India’s fight for independence, gained in 1947, made life a little tense for colonial Brits. Anne and her husband Carlyle Perry, whom she married in 1934, and their eldest daughter Shirley, moved to Sydney in 1948, running a little corner shop in suburban Epping. They had not intended to be shopkeepers (Carl had worked as an accountant for British Rail in India) but a post-war housing shortage in Australia meant housing options were limited. So it was accommodation at the back of a shop that became their home – for all but the last few years.

Both Anne and Carl accepted their lot and made a happy home for Shirley and later Naomi, who arrived as a “surprise” in Anne’s 40th year. I became friends with Naomi 45 years ago and, to be truthful, I did not think Anne would make old bones, as she had various physical ailments and was not particularly physically active. Carrying a bit of extra weight, Anne always had a sweet tooth.

But what Anne has lacked in physical fortitude, she has made up in emotional and spiritual strength. A committed, quietly-believing Christian, Anne has always practised good deeds with charity work and has enjoyed a close circle of friends. While she had to face the loss of her eldest daughter in a car accident in 1989, Anne has been surrounded by the warmth of her family – daughter Naomi, son-in-law Manfred, her five grandsons and six great-grandchildren.

While she claims the “secret” of her long life is with God, Anne says that taking life as it comes has helped her. “There are going to be bad times, and you just have to get through them as you cannot do anything else about them,'” was how she summed it up. Good on you Anne, a lesson for us all.


William Witt, another golden oldie, celebrating his 104th this year in Sydney
William Witt, another golden oldie, celebrating his 104th this year in Sydney
Beatrice Williams, with her family on her 100th in 2010
Beatrice Williams, with her family on her 100th in 2010

Researching family history starts with delving into living relatives’ memories

These days when I invite cousins over, they are asked to bring memories and photographs instead of wine.

Sharing food and anecdotes with cousins. Photo by David Harvey.
Sharing food and anecdotes with cousins. Photo by David Harvey. 

After all, wine can dull the memory and, at our age, we do not need any hindrance to conjuring up childhood memories, or the stories our parents told us. Luckily, of course, our long term memories are better than our short term.

We may forget where we park the car when we go shopping, but we can usually call up a welcoming set of memories from the past, or stories of our grandparents’  lives that had been told to us as we were growing up.

Like me, many of us who want to write, or just know more about, our family story often do so after key players are dead – such as parents and grandparents. In our fifties, when life is slowing down for us, we have the time to mull over stories and try to write them down. Trouble is, we may have left it too late to talk to those who lived those stories.

Thank goodness for cousins, if you are lucky enough to have them. I am fortunate to come from a large family- large by today’s standards. As my great grandmother and grandmother had large families – both gave birth to nine – there are plenty of first cousins, cousins once removed (parents’ cousins) and second cousins, as well as two blood aunts, an uncle and two aunts by marriage who are able to tell me stories – hopefully mostly true.

While my aunts and uncle have been able to tell me many stories of their lives growing up as part of an Australian-Italian family, there are gaps in their knowledge of  their parents’ lives – details they were not told or would prefer to not pass on to me. My uncle, for example, believes that the past belongs in the past, so has only given me a handful of anecdotes, mostly happy memories of growing up in a large, mad family. Those memories are invaluable to me, but I would love to delve more.

My two blood aunts also have been helpful, but again, I feel they are holding back a bit as well. Or perhaps, as the youngest girls in the family, they may have been protected from some of the more unpleasant aspects of their family life.

My mother’s cousins, who are still sharp-minded, have been helpful in telling stories that apparently blood aunts did not know, as have second cousins who came from a more talkative branch of the family. I am fortunate in having the learned Italophile and family historian Peter Tesoriero as a second cousin. Spending time in his lovely home, surrounded by family photos and wonderful books on Italy, is my idea of heaven. If only this retired solicitor was not so busy gallivanting with his many friends, I would ask for more time with him. As my second cousin, we have great grandparents in common and – joy – he has photos of them and has visited their house on the island of Salina in Sicily.

I remember his grandmother, my great aunt Grazia, my grandfather’s sister, very well. My mother was particularly close to her and she often came to our place or we visited her. My grandfather had died when I was four, and she outlived him about 30 years, so she would have been invaluable to me – if I had been ready to write the family story then.

So, now I have to use the relatives I have left, and I have been finding cousins invaluable, as they have been told stories that I have not heard before – and vice versa. It is wonderful exchanging and sharing the information we have.

The set of cousins I had around recently are the sons and daughter of my Uncle Dom, (as well as Christine, from my Uncle Nick). Uncle Dom was the youngest boy of my grandparents, and a great character who, like his father, died in his sixties of a bad heart.  These cousins, twins Nat and John and Joy, recently lost their mother- and that was a big blow to me, more ways than one.

Aunty Norma was another resource who died before I had a chance to quizz her – and she would have been far greater help to me than blood relatives. And here is why – listen up.

What I have learned is that often women who married into the family know more about their husband’s family than the husband – because women listen and are often the sounding-board for their mothers-in-law, especially if they get on with them. Sons often do not want to listen to family anecdotes, until it is too late.

I know this from my own experience with my late mother-in-law, who told me many stories of her life. I was interested as it is also my children’s history. Now, as my ex-husband, in his mid-sixties, tries to piece together his family’s story – long after his parents have died – he has to call me up for little tidbits.

My Aunty Norma was sharp-witted with a high IQ and a good memory, so I trust the stories she has passed on to her children. If only I had been bright enough to take time to sit down with her over the past few years.

Needless to say, the session with those cousins went well, but ended too soon. I have created a lot of interest among cousins and their children, and my children, about the story I am trying to write.

As this year is the 100th anniversary of my grandmother’s final migration to Australia (she was born here, went back to Sicily and returned finally at age 11), it is a good time to get sentimental.

The Easter family picnic I am planning should have a feast of anecdotes and photographs – and of course, the wine and food that is part of our heritage. Let’s hope we can share enough memories before siesta time – another tradition in our blood. ZZZZZZ


The Travails of Two Tubby Travellers: In sickness and in health

Swollen ankle pales in comparison to poor Tub Hub's neck-cricking cough
Swollen ankle pales in comparison to poor Tub Hub’s neck-cricking cough

HOW bad do I feel, dragging my husband around Europe, rousing on him for not getting fitter before our trip and not showing more sympathy for his persistent cough – only to discover he has had pneumonia for weeks??? Well, pretty bad.

To his credit, Tub Hub is not giving me a hard time over my lack of empathy during our travels – like me, he is relieved to finally know what the problem is. The day after arriving home from our nine week Tub Tour, we were off to Hornsby Hospital for a full check-up.

Tubs had wanted to wait to see his doctor but I convinced him that at hospital, he could have all the tests done and results delivered straight away. We were lucky the hospital was not that busy and Tubs was seen to in no time. I went in with him to (a) make sure he absorbed everything he was told (b) remembered to tell the doctor everything that had happened and (c) did not regale the doctor or other staff with the story of his life or other non-essential details. I was only partly successful. He only stopped talking when the doctor shoved the thermometer in his mouth.  Hmm, I might start taking his temperature regularly, as a preventative measure. Is every half an hour excessive?

Now,  I should not make light of my poor darling’s plight but now we know he is okay, I can relate what has been happening the past couple of weeks. We both started coughing badly in the Isle of Capri, getting worse in Venice. As I periodically get allergic bronchitis, ie, an asthmatic cough, I knew that is what I had. We presumed Tub Hub had the same as he can also get an allergic cough. Still, we endured our discomfort, worse at night, for about a week before buying Ventolin puffers from a pharmacy. As in Australia, they are sold over the counter in Italy, something that astounded the Americans and Canadians on our tour.

While my cough eventually improved, Tubs was getting worse and clearly, it was not a dry cough. At night he hardly got any sleep. By the time he got to Rome, we knew we had to call a doctor, as I have already related. With the doctor saying that Tubs was recovering from an infection and prescribing a mild dose of antibiotics, we thought his health would improve.

By the time we got to Taormina, Sicily, where the mission was to relax and find family links, Tubs was over the trip and would have come home if he could have. But he insisted I leave him be and go out and do what I had to do.

Neck-braced, poor Tubs could not enjoy the beauty of Messina
Neck-braced, poor Tubs could not enjoy the beauty of Messina

That was all well and good until one day I returned to our hotel to find that Tubs had coughed so severely, he had momentarily passed out and knocked his head, wrecking his neck. He was convinced that he had broken something in his neck while I thought that if his head was still attached, he could not have damaged it that severely. Of course, it hurt like hell. The hotel, no doubt worried that a guest had fallen in one of their rooms, was very helpful in fetching a neck brace from the pharmacy so Tubs could be more comfortable for our long taxi ride to our last destination – Messina.

We were no sooner settled in our bed and breakfast in Messina, set high above the town, that the amiable host Antonio offered to drive Tubs to the nearby hospital. Tubs told me to stay put – we both now regret that – and he would return in no time. Why he thought that going to an Italian hospital where no-one was likely to speak English would be a faster process than attending a Sydney hospital, which can take hours, I don’t know. And why I went along with not accompanying him, I also don’t know.

Five hours later I was wondering where he was and sought out Antonio who, in typical Italian style, wondered why I was worried. He pointed out that if I tried to go there, my husband could well be heading back. Of course,   Tubs did eventually return, having had his neck seen to – but not his chest. He was pleased of course that it  was not broken or severely damaged. He said to try to explain about his cough seemed like too much trouble.

Those last few days were tough, with my twisted ankle – as already mentioned – and Tubs confined to barracks. I at least had the strength to buy some food to eat at the villa, which we mostly had to ourselves as other guests were sensible enough to have cars and were out all day. As lovely and peaceful as it was, you really needed a car as it was so far from the town and restaurants.

Poor Tubs did suffer – not only from his cough but from my snoring, although I maintain he was imagining it in his delirium. I don’t snore! Nonetheless, rather than prod me awake, dear Tubs sought refuge in the bathroom, meditating. He scared me half to death when I went to use the bathroom. I saw this apparition that looked like Buddha cross-legged in the corner – but it was just Tubs trying to get some rest. That was not the wisest move, given his condition.

So that is how the Tubs ended their tour – coughing, limping and neck braced – but not broken, although the trip home almost did us in.

There are times when I wish Australia was closer to the rest of the world – certainly to Europe. It ended up a 24 hour or so trip, by the time we left Messina, for Catalina airport to fly to Rome and then to Sydney via Dubai.

What a trek, on an economy flight a little squishy for tired Tubs. The only saving grace was that we had a nimble Hungarian woman sitting in the window seat who liked to show off her prowess by literally climbing over us, balancing on the arm rests, when she wanted to go to the toilet. Show off!

The trip was made more painful for poor Tub Hub as he was trying to suppress his cough so as not to scare our fellow passengers. Funny, at one stage the captain announced that anyone who was feeling unwell should contact the cabin crew as Australia had strict quarantine rules. But none turned a head whenever Tubs could not suppress a resounding cough.

Meanwhile, I was feeling remorseful that I had not been more sympathetic to my Tub Hub but at least my insistence on seeking hospital attention, rather than make a GP appointment, paid off and he is now being properly treated.

I am feeling so generous, I will let him off chores for at least a week.

So, was the trip worth it? Yes and no but I am still working out the ratio on that one.

I shall now put together a Tubby Travellers Travel Tips when I get my head together.



Eh, whatamattawityou? Wifey not being very wifely, sadly.
Eh, whatamattawityou? Wifey not being very wifely, sadly.