Reaching the age of 100 has become more commonplace in the last decade. During my tenure working for a community newspaper, I had the privilege of interviewing many who turned 100. A definite plus for me was the enrichment of my life by meeting these centenarians and telling their stories.
When I first started my job in the early 2000s, there were a few each year. As the decade progressed, the numbers grew. When I retired in 2014, I was averaging two or three interviews a month. Reasons are varied — possible genetics, lifestyle, luck of the draw — but there are no clear-cut answers. Some areas of the world have more centenarians than others, but causes are uncertain.
One fact I can definitely state is that most of those I interviewed were women. I could count the men on one hand. Most were also white with few minorities in the mix, but that could be attributed to the makeup of this community. In addition, I can conclude most were average weight, alert and had a vice or two. Some had smoked all their lives, until about the age of 70 or 80, and others liked a little nip of wine or alcohol daily. Most had driven a vehicle through their 90s, until their driver’s licenses had been revoked voluntarily or by the DMV.
There are also many other varying factors, such as being religious or not, keeping up with current events and news, staying at home or living in a community, tending to gardens, cooking, grocery shopping, dietary choices and other activities.
When asked if they had ever thought they would live to be 100, most said absolutely not and were surprised to still be alive.
Often it would take cajoling and prompting to get them to talk about their accomplishments. If I could find a peg (military service, career, family ties, community work, sports, gardening, church affiliations) that would jolt their memories, then I could write a story with a little more substance.
I was impressed that most listed family as the lasting legacy they would leave. Their advice to others about longevity was always interesting, including “Don’t worry,” “Work hard,” “Have faith” and “Love your families.”
I witnessed a tremendous amount of love from centenarians' family members. Sometimes it wasn’t even a child taking care of his or her parent, but a niece, nephew, in-law, cousin or other family member. The message was definitely one of sincere love and devotion. Sometimes they would call me and let me know the centenarian had died and were overcome with grief as they told me. Other times they called to keep me informed of how the loved one was faring.
Generally, the centenarians were the first in their families to reach 100. Rarely did they have a sibling who was still alive, but if they did, usually the brother or sister was much younger.
Most of them did not live far past 100. An exception to this was two cousins that reached the centenarian mark in the same decade. That connection makes the case for genetics and was the only one I witnessed in my years of interviewing. One of them lived alone until she was 107 and then decided to go live with her daughter who was halfway across the country. She was spry, alert and full of energy. I will never forget how she told me she was leaving on a train but would come back in an urn. And that is exactly what happened, not too long after she had made the move. Her cousin, who lived to be 105, was also alert but not as physically active. Her son and his wife had moved in with her. She continued to cook and remained socially active until the last couple of years of her life.
Who knows — maybe in about 30 years or so, some of us will be reaching the 100 mark and wondering, “How did this happen?”