BY DR. ERIC B. LARSON
Throughout my career I have often asked older patients and research subjects if they want to live to be 100. The most common answers are, “Yes,” “Yes if I can stay healthy,” or “I can’t imagine living to 100 with all the disabilities of old age and being a burden to others.”
Gerontologists, other scientists, and popular writers study populations and geographic areas experiencing remarkable longevity (Blue Zones, for example) looking for common genetic traits and lifestyles that characterize long-lived families and individuals.
I am fascinated by what we can learn from the stories from persons who live so long. All of us experience personal changes, triumphs along with adversities. Persons living to 100 must adapt and carry on in the face of life’s adversities—for a long time.
I recently enjoyed reading The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man by David Von Drehle. People often asked Charlie White his “secret” of longevity. His answer: “It was just luck.” He avoided dying in a freak accident through no actions of his own. His genome didn’t predestine him to get early heart disease or a stroke. Even as a smoker he believed “luck” allowed him to avoid lung cancer, while others, with less luck, who never smoked, got lung cancer.
Persons living to 100 years old—less than one half of one percent, according to the Social Security Administration and even fewer who live years beyond 100—can teach us a lot through their stories and experiences about navigating the bittersweet nature of life.
Resilience, the ability to bend, not break in the face of adversity, loss, or sorrow characterizes thriving centenarians. Evangeline (Van) Shuler, an extraordinary research subject featured in the book I co-authored with Joan DeClaire, Enlightened Aging, traveled, at age 100, from Seattle to Argentina to dance in a tango festival. Earlier, she’d experienced the unexpected death of her husband while the pair were working as “retired” Peace Corps volunteers in India. Despite her loss, she returned to India to complete her tour of duty. After age 100, when she lost friends, her secret was to “make new friends.” When she needed to move from independent to group living, she organized a breakfast table and her requirement for membership was to “bring a joke to breakfast everyday.” As an avid reader, when her eyesight failed, she turned to books on tape from the library.
Ben Stevenson, who lived to be 101, was a devoted caregiver for his wife when she suffered a series of strokes and dementia. Later, living by himself, he had a horrific accident when he was dragged by his horse. He was hospitalized in a local ICU and I told his daughters that, given his very old age, he might never recover. Stevenson, however, had built physical, cognitive, and social reserves throughout life. He proved resilient and was able to adapt to extreme adversity. He not only recovered, but much faster than expected and went on to have an active social life in an adult living community. On his 100th birthday, I enjoyed his hilarious doggerel about his life, along with his family and the many friends he gained after his accident.
What about Charlie White? Was he “just lucky?” Yes, and he did have a remarkable life. One bit of White’s general advice when faced with disappointments and losses was “let it go.” Later, when asked how he managed, especially the death of his father when he was young White said, “I just ploughed along and followed my mother’s advice to do the right thing.”
As White approached his life’s end, he distilled his philosophy of life into a list of brief commands. Each phrase reflects wisdom he gained from a remarkably long life:
“Make and keep friends.”
“Tell loved ones how you feel.”
“Forgive and seek forgiveness.”
White’s list contains familiar, simple truths. I like a conclusion author Von Drehle drew from White’s life—confirmed by my experience observing long remarkable lives. A life well-lived may consist of two parts: From youth through adulthood, we discover the complexities of life and are “complexifiers.” Then, if we live long enough, we become simplifiers. Our lives may still be complex, but our response to that complexity can be distilled into simple phrases leading to discrete actions—from White’s mother Laura’s advice to “do the right thing,” to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” to sound advice from White, “Make some mistakes. Learn from them.”
The experiences and wisdom centenarians leave us are simple truths even if life itself is complex, even bittersweet.
More from Charlie White:
“Take a chance.”
From this aging author: “Accept, be grateful, and cherish aging.”
Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, is the author, with Joan DeClaire, of Enlightened Aging. He is the founding principal investigator of the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study, ongoing for about 30 years. ACT recently was awarded a $55.6 million expansion grant from the National Institutes of Health.