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