Sole Focus

News, Views, Rantings & Ramblings by Carey Parrish

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Location: Georgia, United States

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Years Do Pass

While a centenarian is someone who reaches the age of 100, a supercentenarian is a person who reaches the age of 110. Statistically, only one in one thousand centenarians will become supercentenarians and it is estimated that there are around 450 of these aged folks living today. Verifying the ages of those who claim to be 110 or greater isn't always easy but for the most part about ninety of the supercentenarians known are verified.

To date, the oldest person who ever lived was a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment. She was born in 1875 and she died in 1997, living a total of 122 years and 164 days. She had the longest human life span in history and she is the only person ever verified to have reached the age of 120. Madame Calment was the last living human link to the 1870's. She recalled meeting Vincent Van Gogh in 1888 when she was thirteen years old, and she wasn't impressed by him in the least. She also remembered the Eiffel Tower's construction. She outlived her daughter and her grandson. When she turned ninety, she agreed to sell her home to a lawyer, who in turn agreed to pay her on a monthly basis as well as let her continue living in her flat until she died. Well, she outlived him too. By the time of his death he had paid her almost double what the apartment was worth. Madame Calment lived on her own until she was 110. She moved into a care home because she had a small house fire while cooking. She smoked cigarettes until she was 117 and she ate a kilo of chocolate a week. By the time she died she was joking to people that she was "competing with Methusula."

As astounding as her case is, the next longest lived person was Sarah Knauss of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Knauss reached the impressive age of 119 years, 97 days. She was born in 1880 and died in 1999. Her daughter, who lived to be 101 herself, said she believed Mrs. Knauss lived so long because "nothing phases her." She was known to be calm in the midst of anything. Her hobbies included watching golf on television and eating potato chips. She was 28 when Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, she lived through seven U.S. wars, 23 U.S. Presidents, the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, aged 32, and Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, aged 47. On the occasion of her 115th birthday a reporter asked her if she still enjoyed life and she replied that she did enjoy it because she had her health and she "could do things."

In total there are seven verified people who lived to the age of 116 and beyond. Currently the world's oldest living person is Besse Cooper of Monroe, Georgia; a retired school teacher who is - as of today - 115 years, 16 days old.

The subject of supercentenarians became appealing to me after I read a book about the legendary Madame Calment. I began doing research on these amazing people and the one thing that stands out about all of them is the fact that none of them were ever fanatical about their health. They simply remained in good health into extreme old age. In the case of Madame Calment, she was ambulatory until after her 115th birthday when she fractured her femur in a fall. After recovering she could walk around in her room and for short distances but mainly she traveled by wheelchair when she went out. Shortly before this event, she became the oldest person on record to appear in a feature film when she was shown briefly in the movie Vincent and Me, about Vincent Van Gogh.

Long lives are not unknown in my family, although admittedly no one has yet reached the status of supercentenarianism. My maternal grandmother lived until shortly before her 88th birthday, while her sister Annie lived to be three days shy of her 95th birthday, and they had a cousin who lived to the age of 104. On my father's side of the family, his paternal grandmother lived to be 101, outliving all but two of her seven children.

You have to wonder what it is about supercentenarians that makes it possible for them to reach such extreme old age. It has to be something in their genetic make up. As none of them are known to be health nuts, they have to be benefitting from something as of yet unknown to science. While many of them do eventually become wheelchair bound or suffer from failing vision and hearing, they all remained lucid and with very good memories right up to the end of their lives. In the case of Henry Allingham, who lived to be 114 and was Britain's last surviving World War 1 veteran, he didn't even need medications of any kind.

In the United States the average age at death for most people is 78 years, but the US also boasts the largest number of supercentenarians in the world. I know from having worked in the healthcare industry for more than two decades that it is becoming quite common for people to live into their nineties. What is even more amazing is that modern healthcare is making it possible for a lot of these people to remain active and with a good quality of life as well. Though nursing homes are far from becoming obsolete, and the maladies of old age such as stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis, etcetera continue to be widespread, the number of elderly people who are avoiding them is growing.

So what would it be like to live to be so old that you've outlived almost everyone you ever knew? How would you continue to find your purpose when the years keep passing and you keep getting older? With Madame Calment, by the time of her 100th birthday she had no heirs left and she still had over two decades to go. Mrs. Knauss resided in a nursing home and by the time she died her daughter lived there too. Elizabeth Bolden, a woman from Memphis who lived to be 116 years, 118 days, had a 74 year old grandson at the time of her 114th birthday. Mrs. Bolden in fact had seven children (although only two were living at the time of her death) and 40 grandchildren, 75 great-grandchildren, 150 great-great-grandchildren, 220 great-great-great grandchildren and 75 great-great-great-great-grandchildren. WOW!

I suppose it is the fact that these people all did retain their lucidity that they kept on enjoying life as they got older and older. They could find things to occupy their time and to get involved with. Most of them become celebrities as well, making their way into the Guiness Book of World Records and enjoying busy social schedules due to their advanced ages. Charlotte Hughes was a British supercentenarian who lived 115 years, 228 days. On her 110th birthday she flew Concorde to New York City where she met Mayor Ed Koch and stayed for four days at a suite in the Waldorf Astoria, all expenses paid. That's certainly something to be proud of. What's more, most of these folks remain in such robust health that they are able to live independently until sometimes just a few years before they die.

But they do eventually die. When Madame Calment finally died a nurse at her care home called her doctor with the news and the doctor did not believe it. He had to go there himself to assess her for death before he'd accept it. A woman who "competed with Methusula" certainly deserved the benefit of the doubt, eh? And on her death certificate, her doctor listed only "old age" as the cause of her death. I would call that an understatement, wouldn't you?

Years do pass and we all get older as they go by. Would you aspire to become a supercentenarian? I wouldn't mind it as long as I could keep a good quality of life and enjoy myself. I wouldn't like outliving my family but the thing about living to such an advanced age is that it can't be helped. These people don't sit and force themselves to keep living. They just go to sleep each night and wake up every morning the same as anybody else. The fact that we're all going to live until we die cannot be escaped, whether you go at a young age or live to be 122 years old. You're going to be here until the last day you are here. And that's just the way it is.

For those interested, here is a link to a table of the longest lived supercentenarians on record, courtesy of Wikipedia: 

Will you one day be among them?

Carey Parrish


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