Saturday, September 28, 2013

My Mother, the Aspiring Centenarian.

“The author Hermann Hesse writes that the more one matures, the younger one grows. There are many people who as they age become increasingly vigorous and energetic, more broad-minded and tolerant, living with a greater sense of freedom and assurance. It is important to remember that aging and growing old are not necessarily the same.” – Daisaku Ikeda

This week in class, we briefly discussed the growing numbers of centenarians in recent history.  We learned that in the U.S., there were over 50,000 centenarians in 2000, and numbers are expected to reach 600,000 by 2050!

This is an exciting, unprecedented time in history where the oldest old (85+) are becoming the fastest growing age group.  Aging experts and non-experts alike worry about potential issues that can arise from the large population of older adults. The costs associated with aging and long-term care are major areas of concern, and recent reports suggest that there are not enough caregivers to accommodate the large numbers of elders. 

Although these concerns must be addressed by society (I often worry about these issues as well), there is something wonderful and hopeful about the notion of reaching the century mark.  While I don’t know if I want to be 100, I am in awe of those who have reached this auspicious age.  I imagine the very many historical moments they’ve been a part of, and the rapid societal changes and personal changes they have witnessed throughout their lifespans.

Some of the characteristics of centenarians include healthy diet, healthy weight, no smoking, exercise, low stress, and social support. Genes also have some influence on longevity, and it seems that this is significant for centenarians.  There are anecdotal stories I’ve heard where some people seem to have terrible habits and live unhealthy lifestyles, yet survive into old age.  It may be that such persons have wonderful social support, which may be the essential factor that aids wellbeing.

By the way, my mother aspires to be a centenarian.  She is a spry 85 year-old lady, and something tells me that she has the determination to reach 100.   

In thinking about my mother’s life history, she was a young teenager growing up in a small village during the Second World War.  Her family lived comfortably before the War, but experienced sudden poverty when her father died of Malaria at the age of 39.  As a young woman she worked to help support her family, married late, gave birth much later, moved to the U.S. in her forties, faced financial instability, struggled to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture while trying to raise her children, challenged various health issues, and lost her husband to vascular dementia.  She has had her fair share of hardships!  While there is suggestion that stress contributes to aging, I believe in some people, such as my mother, stress fortifies their resilience.

Early photos of mom. In the pic w/her friend, she is on the left side.
While mother shares some centenarian characteristics, one factor that makes me chuckle is her diet.  As a young person, my mother and her family subsisted mainly on carbs such as potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes, and root vegetables.  Once in awhile, they ate some animal protein including wild boar, chicken, and fish.  Otherwise, there wasn’t much variation, and raw brown sugar was an occasional treat.  While her diet has since then diversified to include burgers, pizzas, and ice cream, she still eats plenty of sweet potatoes and root vegetables.  Remarkably, she has remained healthy, albeit a little plump, and there are no signs of osteoporosis and diabetes! (Eating minimal amounts of processed food in her youth must have been a protective factor. Also, she lived near a volcanic area…so perhaps the soil contained rich nutrients?)

When I was a young girl, my mother used to tell me that she decided to have me because she needed someone to take care of her in old age. I used to be offended by her comment, but now in midlife, I am starting to understand and appreciate her practical strategy.  Incidentally, my mother gave birth to me when she was nearly 40.  Perhaps she suspected that she might live a very long life!

What do you think about the growing numbers of centenarians? Would you like to live to 100? Although I am undecided, I would love to hear what other people think. Thank you, and have a wonderful week!

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