During my recent hospital stay, I had a delightful lady of 102 years for a roommate. She was hospitalized due to a fractured hip which occurred when she was walking to her local mall for her weekly manicure. The fracture occurred when she was blown off her feet by a huge gust of wind. The superintendent of her building found her on the sidewalk and she was brought to hospital by ambulance. Daily excursions to the mall from her nearby apartment had been her routine for many years. She walked alone using only a heavy bundle buggy for support (no walker, no cane) and to help her carry her purse as well as the purchases she would make. What a shock she felt when she found herself in a hospital bed with strangers caring for her.
For purposes of this post, I’ll call this wonderful lady, Gertie which is not her real name. With a quick wit, brilliant blue eyes glistening from her lined face, and an ever-present grin, she was in love with life. She told me that she had out-lived husbands (no mention of how many) and was happy to live alone even though she did, at times, feel lonely. She added that it would not be ‘worth it’ to bother marrying again. Her social life revolved around friends at the mall — people in shops she frequented, her hairdresser, a clerk at the liquor store and, most of all, the staff at her local Tim Hortons coffee shop that served her every day. A cup of black coffee and a bowl of chicken noodle soup comprised her usual daily purchase although she seemed to know the characteristics of every standard menu item of the Tim Horton’s franchise and indicated that she had tried all of them.
Gertie is the first centenarian who I could remember encountering. Living to 100 years of age is becoming more common but it remains a mystery as to why some people achieve this milestone of living for ten plus decades but most die well before the age of 100. Unbelievably, few people have the opportunity to engage with the oldest among us to learn their secrets.
On many occasions I have stated that my goal was to live to avenge my pensions by acheiving an age of at least 100 years. I was interested in Gertie’s perceptions of the reasons for longevity and listened carefully as she described the reasons for her ten plus decades.
Gertie’s Thoughts on Living Beyond 100
- “I stopped worrying”. Gertie told me that she was fortunate to have enough income to meet her modest needs. She felt protected in her immediate environment. Until the fateful day of her hip fracture, she enjoyed relatively good health. Each day she focused on her trip to the mall and did not think too far into the future. She had a support system in place including relatives that checked in with her on a weekly basis, the superintendent in her building, and her friends at the mall. Gertie told me that as the years passed, so did many of the worries. Stress management professionals know that stress from worrying can have a significant toll on health and well-being. In her own way, Gertie learned to stop the worries and focus on one day at a time.
- “I walk to the mall everyday”. This daily physical activity helped her to maintain a good body weight, provided necessary exercise without undue exertion and supplied her with a network of social contacts. Gertie told me that the party for her 100th birthday was held at her beloved Tim Hortons coffee shop where all of her friends from the mall, her friends from the apartment building, and her relatives gathered to enjoy coffee and doughnuts. Queen Elizabeth II and the Prime Minister of Canada sent birthday greetings and that was important, but having the party at Tim Hortons superseded the Queen.
- “I watch the news”. Gertie was knowledgeable about current events and had strong opinions about popular media personalities. Her television set provided a window to the world and kept her company in the apartment. From our conversation, it was obvious that she had good cognitive capacity. Her store of knowledge spanned two centuries and she had excellent recall of various events — whether it was the recent illness of a friend’s cat or the latest death toll of Canadians fighting in Afghanistan.
These three points were as far as she got during our bedside conversations. Reducing stress, engaging in regular physical exercise and remaining engaged are components of advice given by gerontologists around the world. I was fortunate to encounter a courageous woman who had incorporated these elements into a successful life.
Gertie showed unbelievable fortitude as she accepted the hospital routines. She joked with nurses and doctors. Sometimes she struggled to hear what was said to her but usually she was fully aware of the happenings around her. One night she asked for and received a sleeping pill that disoriented her for about 48 hours. Obviously medications and drugs were not something that her body could tolerate easily. The bravery she demonstrated only wavered when she learned that she could not go directly home from the hospital but would need to spend some time at a rehabilitation hospital where she would learn how to walk again and to care for herself.
I’ll never know what happened to Gertie as I was discharged while she was still feeling the drowsiness of the sleeping medication. I worry that her independence may be compromised in future and that her lifestyle will need to change due to the hip fracture. Her example will have a lasting impact as her advice is sound and will be emulated — by me and by many others.
Have you met someone like Gertie? For those of us in the early stages of retirement and looking for the clues to a long and happy life, it is worth contemplating these simple strategies that served Gertie so well. I will continue to blog about my journey into the third age. Send me your comments and thoughts.
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