|Doll on display at the Dickinson House in Manotick, Ontario
Over the years I have the honour of meeting a few centenarians who aged with grace and dignity. Most of the patients I work with are aging badly with any number of chronic and degenerative diseases. We all want to know the secret to growing old well, maintaining our independence, health and quality of life in later years.
Marija was a 99 year old lady who lived independently in a city apartment. She shopped, cooked, cleaned and looked after her 93 year old sister who had dementia. Marija was elegant with erect posture, a long braid around her head, and a beautiful face. She grew up in Eastern Europe and lived through harrowing times during World War 2. She worked hard when she and her husband came to Canada in the 1950s and raised her family while holding down a domestic job.
Marija tripped over the edge of a step and broke her hip in a fall. She had surgery and returned home in a few days, quickly learning to get around with a walker. She would be in the kitchen cooking homemade soups and stews when I visited and never had a complaint about pain or misfortune. I discharged her from service after a few visits but received an invitation later in the year from her daughter to attend her 100th birthday party. She recovered well from her fracture and continued to live independently in the community.
I met another 100 year old lady who also returned home following a hip fracture. (Hip fractures were my bread and butter when I did home visits!) Her hospital course was more complicated after surgery but she had a cat at home and that motivated her to get walking again. Clara had fallen off the toilet in the middle of the night but was wearing a Lifeline device and was able to call for help. She laughed when she described the good looking young firemen who came in and lifted her from the floor.
On Clara’s wall was a framed certificate presented on her 50th anniversary of using insulin. It bore the name of Sir Frederick Banting, the Canadian physician, researcher and Nobel laureate who first used injected insulin to treat diabetes in humans. Clara developed insulin-dependent diabetes in the 1950’s and followed her diet and medication plan faithfully in the years before home blood sugar testing and fast-acting synthetic insulins were available. To reach 100 years of age, almost 60 years of them as a diabetic, is amazing considering the many people who manage this illness poorly and suffer debilitating complications in their middle years.
Both Marija and Clara lived routine lives, ate simple, wholesome meals, had interests outside of themselves and accepted life’s ups and downs without fear or bitterness. They obviously had inherited some good genes as well!
Recently I met a 99 year old man who had a productive life and currently resides in a minimum care facility. He gets around independently with his walker and enjoys a good conversation as well as several short naps throughout the day. He told me it didn’t matter if he celebrated his 100th birthday or died tomorrow. He had a successful career building large high rise apartments but life had gradually ground to a halt after he retired in his 80s. He had outlived his friends, wife, siblings and some of his children. He was cheerful and matter-of-fact but recognized we only live one day at a time. In the end our quality of life is of more value than the quantity of years we may accumulate.