"Becoming a Centenarian"
In the face of declining longevity in the United States, it is nice to find in the recent news several pieces about centenarians. Elizabeth Theona Gauthier, who will turn 106 on June 5th, has wintered in Vallarta for the past 12 years. Her advice? "Don’t put yourself in the rocking chair in front of the TV." Elizabeth still loves to sew and to read, to shop and to cook, and now and then to eat out at Vallarta restaurants like Roberto’s and Las Palomas. She attends mass and every night she says her rosary. She loves Mexico and according to a recent story in The Guadalajara Reporter, "she is amazed how kind fathers are to their children, and how many hugs she gets here."
Only last month, two of the world’s oldest women met in a nursing home in Shelbyville Indiana, where one of them, Edna Parker, was celebrating her 114th birthday. The other, Bertha Fry, of Muncie, Indiana, is 113. To put that in perspective, each woman has lived through about half of the time elapsed during the entire history of the United States. According to Gerontology Research Group, in January Edna Parker became the second-oldest person in the world, the oldest being Yone Minagawa of Japan who turned 114 on January 4. Both Bertha and Edna taught school, and both live in Indiana. I hope that they both have eaten a lot of those breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches, with lettuce and mayonnaise, for which Indiana is famous.
Also last month, a British man, Alec Holden, celebrated his 100th birthday with £25,000 pounds, equivalent to approximately $50,000 US dollars in winnings. Ten years ago he had placed a £100 ($200) bet with the bookmaker firm of William Hill, which gave the ninety-year old 250 to 1 odds that he would not reach his 100th birthday. (The bookmaker firm recently said, "…these age wagers are starting to cost us a fortune.") Holden attributed his health and longevity to eating porridge daily and playing chess.
Holden’s bet reminded me of another wonderful centenarian, that French woman, Jeanne Calment, who, by the time she passed away in 1997, had the longest confirmed lifespan in history-122 years. Like Alec Holden, Jeanne wanted to cash in on what she thought would be a long life. In 1996, at age 90, with no living heirs (her only daughter, Yvonne, died of pneumonia at age 36), Jeanne Calment agreed to sell her condominium to a lawyer, François Raffray, who was only age 47. Raffray agreed to pay Calment a fixed sum each month as long as she lived.
At the time of the signing, the value of her condominium was equal to ten years of payments, meaning should she live even to age 100, the lawyer still would have paid a fair value. But, Jeanne Calment lived for more than thirty years beyond the signing. François Raffray died of cancer at age 77, leaving his widow obligated to continue the payments.
Jeanne Calment was quite a character, taking up fencing at age 85, still riding a bicycle at age 100, living on her own until age 110. Because she had met Vincent van Gogh in her father’s shop when she was 14-finding him "dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable" Calment, at age 114, appeared as herself in the film Vincent and Me, becoming the oldest actress ever. She quit smoking at age 117, and in her "later years" she attributed her longevity to having giving up smoking in her "youth."
More and more people here at Lakeside are living into their nineties, and no doubt some of us will become centenarians. But back in the States, those middle-aged and younger are increasingly more likely to live shorter lives. Robin McKie, Science Editor for The Observer, says that "Twenty years ago, the US, the richest nation on the planet, led the world’s longevity league. Today, American women rank only 19th, while males can manage only 28th place, alongside men from Brunei."
Professor Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Professor James Morone of Brown University, in the journal American Prospect, state that "A look at the Americans’ health reveals astonishing inequalities in our society." McKie goes on to say, "Their paper is one of a recent swathe of studies that have uncovered a shocking truth: America, once the home of the world’s best-fed, longest-lived people, is now a divided nation made up of a rich elite and a large underclass of poor, ill-fed, often obese, men and women who are dying early."
Resources are unevenly distributed in the US, compared to other developed nations. When a Boston College study "compared men and women in America’s top 10 per cent wage bracket with those in the bottom ten per cent, they found the former group earned 17 times more than the latter. In Japan, Switzerland and Norway, this ratio is only five-to-one." Jacobs and Morone state: "For poor Americans, health service provision is little better than that in third world nations. People die younger in Harlem than in Bangladesh."
What about those "real" Americans, the rich ones most of us want to become? Robert Samuelson, writing for The Washington Post, points out that "From 1995 to 2005, median CEO compensation [at 350 major companies] rose 151 percent, from $2.7 million to $6.8 million;" and "In the same period the median sales of these companies increased 51 percent to $7.6 billion and the median profits, 126 percent to $591 million;" but "By contrast, the median pay increase for full-time, year-round workers aged 25 to 64 in these years was only 32 percent to $38,223" (that’s all workers, not just those at the study’s firms). That means those at the top are now making almost two-hundred times what us ordinary, "median" level
workers are making. Whatever form their own particular Fountain of Youth takes, $6.8 million a year can buy a lot of it. The current CEO pay explosion is, Samuelson says, "primarily a moral failure."
Well, that’s enough stuff to raise the blood pressure. Let’s get back to life here at Lakeside and to living to be 100. I am going to live to be more than 100. How do I know? Last summer I visited Doña Sofia de Garza, a famous curandera who lives near Colima, to ask her how to do this. Wow! I was fascinated by Doña Sofiaís gold bangles, both on her ears and on her wrists, and by her full (and fabled) bosom ready to burst out of her gauzy Mexican blouse, and by her skirt, a deep and sultry red, and by her eyes, so deliciously dark with tiny flecks of gold, and yes, by her mouth-which at age seventy was still remarkably desirable. Incredibly, she looked like a slightly older version of the gypsy girl played by Salma Hayek in The Hunchback.
In less than thirty minutes of consultation, Doña Sofia divined the solution and assured me that indeed I could live to be more than one-hundred. The secret, she whispered to me, through that delectable mouth that would remain with me in imagination for many months, was to love women of all ages, to kiss them on their lips as often as possible and as passionately as each situation allowed, and to pay her, Doña Sofia de Garza, only $400 pesos for everything she had revealed to me.