National Centenarian Awareness Project
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Founded in 1989 by Lynn Peters Adler, J.D.
Centenarian Expert and Older Adults Advocate

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Love and Relationships

The "Fab Five" Centenarians from the Barbara Walters Special:
          Our elders are way ahead of us on this score, I have to admit.  There is a long-running joke around the Sun Cities of Arizona that the best enhancer for romance in recent years was the cell phone – because people could take it with them wherever they were sleeping and if their kids called, they would be “covered.”  Now, of course, with GPS tracking devices, this could pose a problem, but thanks to Barbara Walters’s mention of Dorothy Young as being her favorite among the centenarians because of her boyfriend (sure glad I invited Stan to join us in New York!) when talking about the centenarians on the longevity special, and using this as an example of it being “never too late” – meaning for romance and relationships – I think the die is cast. This once taboo topic is out in the open now, along with Ms. Walters’s disclosures from her life, and this is a welcome relief and acknowledgment of the reality of life in later years, really later years – into our 80s, 90s and even 100 and beyond! Click to view a video about Dorothy and her life.

           Among our “Fab Five” centenarians, Dr. Karl Hartzell, who is as conservative and proper a gentleman as they come, remarried at the age of 87 and outlived his second wife, also.  In Dorothy’s case, Ms. Walters was drawn to the fact that Dorothy had found love “for the first time” after 46 years of marriage (more on that another time).  But Dr. Hartzell had a “lovely family and a wonderful wife,” as he tells us.  And yet, he went on to find love again – different, to be sure, but a meaningful relationship all the same.  What is outstanding about both Dorothy’s ten year relationship with Stan and Karl’s second marriage is that their families embraced the new relationships. This is not always the case.  And now that I think of it, Dr. Frank Shearer, the “water skiing man” shown on the Barbara Walters Special, married his second wife when he was in his late 80s – and with his daughter’s blessing.  Considerately, he asked Marilene’s opinion before proposing; he didn’t want her to feel that he was replacing her mother. But Marilene, a gracious and generous woman, told him that she was happy that he had found love again – and they are all very close and the second Mrs. Shearer is very much a part of the family. 
           Now Rosie is a different example altogether!  Let’s face it – he’s a quintessential showman, a musician – with a reputation to match!  After five marriages – Rosie has a hilarious story to tell about the second-to-last one. More about that later; for now, think “Frankie and Johnny!”
          Rosie at 100 was proud (and fond) of saying that he “liked the ladies as much as he did at 20,” and in fact had a girlfriend for about a year when he was 99 to 100-plus. They split up shortly after the Genworth Commercial shoot because she wanted to get married, he said, and he was “done with that!”  AND, Rosie’s longtime roommate, Doc Cotts, who lived with Rosie in his home in Mayer, Ariz., after Rosie was widowed, had a very long running and very nice “platonic” relationship with a “neighbor lady.” They traveled extensively for about 15 years, to exotic places such as Turkey and Russia and adventurous locales like Alaska; they took comfortable cruises to Hawaii and the Caribbean, and “did the Grand Tour of Europe,” as Mary said. They had a wonderful time for about 15 years, and would see each other every day, and every Friday night they would go out together to the Pine Cone Inn for dinner and to hear Rosie play. They even had their special table to the right front of the stage and enjoyed dancing to Rosie’s music. 
          So romance in later years has been around, well, probably always – it’s just that we didn’t live as long before. I’m very happy to have the opportunity to talk about this now, because it’s an important part of our quality of life in later years.  Others, such as Elsa and Kit (the dancer on the Special), and most often women, say that their husbands were the love of their lives and they wouldn’t want another. And yet they, too, once widowed, find relationships that provide an interest and a support for them and that enhance their lives. 
          For Elsa, it is clearly her social life, with many, many friends. She speaks openly about having never wanted to remarry or even have a romantic interest after she lost her husband, despite being 10 years younger than her husband, and surely with lots of opportunities. As anyone can see, Elsa is both elegant and beautiful. And Kit has found solace during the long years of widowhood, since she was in her early forties, by being the matriarch of her close-knit family. 
          Lillian’s story is a combination of both of these worlds. She never wanted to remarry, she told me, but she had many, many suitors and boyfriends over the years since she lost her husband.  Her granddaughter, Alyson, tells of two of Lillian’s suitors. 
Click for Lillian's web page. Lillian is such a sweetheart – she thinks it’s because she’s petite that men are so attracted to her, and always have been! 
          And so, there is a lot to look forward to in our later years – and a lot of possibilities!  And once again, centenarians are leading the way. 

 

Excerpt from "Centenarians: The Bonus Years"
Chapter 6: The Will to Live, The Courage to Grow Old

LOVE AND RELATIONSHIPS 

Centenarians maintain that one never outgrows the need for love and relationships and that having someone who cares keeps life interest­ing. They give witness to the undeniable desire to remain connected with others, either intimately or socially through contact with the com­munity, organizations, and friends.
            The Centenarian Wish List continues with Viva Johnson, 100, of Corning, Iowa, who says, “I wish older people had more love in their Lives!’ Like many of her contemporaries, Viva says it is important to her how she is regarded by family, friends, and her community, where she has been a long-time resident. “I want people to like me;’ she tells. Viva lives with her daughter in a loving and welcoming environment, sur­rounded by her extended family, who visit her often. She plays the piano for entertainment at family gatherings, a talent she first displayed as an accompanist in the local movie theater for silent movies. Viva typifies the feelings of many centenarians and others of advanced age. People who throughout their lives have been open and receptive and interested in others, want friends, acquaintances, as well as relatives, to remain central in their lives.
            Despite this wish and the related desire, an older person’s actual relationships often change dramatically, leading a number of cen­tenarians to say that the hardest thing about being old is the loneliness. Many centenarians and others of advanced age have outlived not only their spouses but also some, or all, of their children. The majority of centenarians, especially women, have been widowed for decades. Some have been alone for almost as long a time as they were married; some for longer, such as Vita Hancock, 101, of Homeland, florida, who has lived alone for forty-five years since her husband died. A much smaller percentage of centenarians have never married. Of those who have remarried late in life, most are men.
             Many centenarians without spouses have developed close relation­ships with their children, usually daughters, or with other family members, such as a sister or grandchild. These bonds help fortify them in their later years. Others, such as Hedvig Peterson, who has been a widow for almost thirty years and with no children, have developed close relationships with friends through church and community organizations. As her cousin observed, “Heddy has the ability to make friends among all generations. She is interested in them and keeps up with current trends and events that are important in the lives of youn­ger people. After her husband died, Heddy set about making friends and built a support network which has sustained her through these    many years. She has actively reached out to others and has made them important in her life. She is loved and admired. Heddy continues to do everything she can for herself. But if she does need help, there are a dozen people close by who would come immediately to her aid. People in the community think of her as an inspiration and an asset to the neighborhood.”
            This bond with others is very important. Whether one lives alone, she with family members, or in a care center, the need for social involvement and community is apparent. People can help support the will to live and interest in life in our eldest citizens and help alleviate some the of the loneliness by giving them just a little time and attention and by creating opportunities for our eldest citizens to remain connected to a community. James Lee Moss of Lewisburg, Tennessee, verbalized what a lot of his peers feel: “I like attention and to be noticed. As of 103, and I’m proud to be here!’
|            Mary Ogburn, 105, of Mesa, Arizona, illustrates how socialization and relationships with others can improve life and strengthen one’s will. “Mother has lived with me for many years;’ says Ruth Silides. “She has always been a cheerful, outgoing person, never complains, and is nice and friendly with everyone. She always enjoyed being with people. But as she grew very old, the opportunities for social activities got less. Most of her friends died, and there were fewer places I could take her out to enjoy because her hearing got bad and so did her eyesight. We have always been very close, but I work during the day, and she was alone for a lot of hours. Last year, at 104, she began to decline; her spirits dropped, and she seemed to be losing interest in the world around her for the first time since I’ve known her. She would sit home alone most of the day and watch television or sleep. She was always tired. I finally convinced her to go to the day care center, which is part of the senior center, two days a week. At first she didn’t want to go and when I took her, she said she didn’t like being there. But within two weeks, I began to see a difference. She was brighter, more interested in everything, more like herself. Then I learned she had made two new friends, both women in their eighties. Now, six months later, she looks forward to going to be with her friends and enjoys the activities at the center. She is much improved over a year ago!’
            Mary celebrated her 105th birthday with a large party at the day-care center. She gave sprigs of heather to each guest to wear, a reminder of her native Scotland. A local doctor took time from his busy schedule to play several of her favorite songs on the bagpipes. When the pipes skirled “Happy Birthday;’ tears filled Mary’s eyes. They were tears of remembrance for times past, and they were tears of joy and of appreci­ation for the present camaraderie of family and friends gathered in celebration of her life.
           Gertrude Skerston, 100, of Dennisport, Massachusetts, basks in the warmth and love she receives from her daughter. She tells that her daughter’s presence nearby gives her peace of mind and happiness. Gertrude lives alone in her own home and has a homemaker come two hours each day. Her daughter and son-in-law live in the house behind her. “My daughter sees to it that I get to bed every night;’ she says con­tentedly. ‘A hug from someone who cares at bedtime is better than a sleeping pill.”
            Centenarians are also coming up with creative living arrangements and developing new relationships to help meet their needs and yet preserve their autonomy. One enterprising centenarian of Salt Lake City has worked out a successful living arrangement that allows her to stay in her own home. For many years, she has invited a married couple each year from nearby Brigham Young University to live with her. “It works out just fine;’ she says. “The students have a place to live and enough room and privacy to study, and I have help with what I need. We share the cooking and take our meals together frequently. I enjoy the lively conversation. It’s nice having young people around, and it keeps me in touch and up-to-date!’ Her family also lives nearby and visits often.
            For centenarians Agnes Tappe, 105, and Lillian Heller, 106, of Freeport, Illinois, neither of whom ever married, the answer to com­panionship in their later years came in sharing those years together. They were girlhood friends who lived within blocks of each other. Their friendship continued, and their lives became more entwined when Lillian’s brother married Agnes’s sister. They began to help raise the nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews who followed. Six­teen years ago, they entered St. Joseph’s Home as roommates.
            Other centenarians have found the answer to companionship in their later years by remarrying. Louis Kelly was eighty and a widower for three years when he met Dorothy, seventy-one. “We met in the spring and were married in the fall;’ he says. Louis and Dorothy recently celebrated their twenty-third anniversary.
            The Reverend Joseph Penn was eighty-five when he married for the second time; he and his wife celebrated seventeen years together. Cen­tenarian Frank Rowels of Houston, Missouri, was in his mid-eighties also the second time around: “I married for the first time at twenty-nine and was married for forty-six years. We had eight children. After my wife died in 1965, I met Virginia, who is a year younger than I am. We married five years later, when I was eighty and she was seventy-nine. We have been married for twenty-one years and holding. We have grown old together. A few years ago, we came to live with my daughter. Recently Virginia’s health began to fail, and she now lives at a nursing home nearby where she can get the care she needs. I go to visit with her every day. My daughter takes me, even though it isn’t her mother, because she knows it is important to me. I feel it is my duty to be with my wife, and, besides, I want to be. She celebrated my 100th birthday with me in 1988 and I celebrated with her in 1989. That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? When we married, we thought we’d have only a few years together. It’s important to us to be together as much as we can. It’s hard to be separated now. Just because men and women grow old doesn’t mean they stop loving or caring or wanting to be together!’
            For centenarian couple Ben and Gladys Pruitt, the years of caring and commitment span not only their old age and their centennials but their youth and middle age, as well. They are one of the very few centenarian couples to reach a diamond (seventy-fifth) anniversary and beyond. In May 1991, they celebrated their seventy-eight wedding anniversary.
            For many years, the Pruitts lived alone in Springfield, Oregon, in an old farmhouse they purchased when they retired. They developed hobbies and pastimes and interests that they did together, such as oil painting, and other interests that they pursued individually. “I think it’s the ideal way to get along and to spend so many years together,” Ben tells. When poor health required that Gladys move to a nursing home, Ben moved in, too, because he didn’t want to be without her.

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1998-2013 National Centenarian Awareness Project & Lynn Peters Adler, J.D.
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