The Longevity Paradox - Two Sides to the Story of Living a Long Life

On an April Sunday back in 2006, my father and I kept our regular date for what had become a weekly chat between us two. He on his end of the telephone at his home in Trinidad, the southernmost island of the Caribbean archipelago; me on my cellphone in an apartment in Florida. At 94 years of age, my father hadn’t lost his dry humor leaning towards sarcastic wit. His opening salvo that particular evening was aimed at politicians across the globe who according to his analysis, were all the same, except of course for his hero Eric Williams, the first prime minister of the island republic. Part of his regular banter with me usually included a rebuke for my walking away from what he perceived as the good life in Trinidad that had beckoned me to return home some years prior, after an earlier stint abroad. This time he acknowledged my reasons for leaving again – to live closer to my daughter who, as a born American, is quite rooted in her own homeland. I was getting older, I reminded him. “I wish you all a good life” he conceded, then suddenly switched: “Do you think you’d like to live to be 100?” He was less than six years away from being a centenarian, yet he threw the question at me in a tone suggesting he harbored contrary thoughts about approaching the milestone. Here he was, mind and body strong and intact, exposing a spirit unaligned with a vision of himself at 100, a feat otherwise deemed as a gift to a select few. His voice revealed tiredness with a hint of grief – a condensed summary of sorrow about certain specific family disappointments, the state of the world, the downhill slide of his championship West Indies cricket team, and the unlikelihood of his favorite Brazilian football (soccer) squad winning the world cup tournament scheduled to start in a few months. We closed with my blithe promise to him that life will improve. He muttered a deliberate unintelligible response, most likely trying not to embarrass me with a cynical comeback to my senseless assurances. There was no magic fix to what ailed him – the pain of emptiness more so than empty nest. The next morning began with a different type of phone call breaking into my start of the week. During the hours when Sunday morphed into Monday, my father died in his sleep. In earlier conversations, he had described the happenstance of “dying in ones sleep” as the “death of kings.” For my father it was a fitting finale. I noted the peacefulness on his face as he lay in his casket, leaving the vagaries of family, politics, and professional sports to the rest of us.

Becoming a Centenarian

My mother on the other hand now wears the mantle and crown of a centenarian, having turned 100 years old in January 2022. In the years leading up to the date, she unabashedly looked ahead to achieving her goal. No one attempted to burst her bubble with the reality of such matters being out of human hands. Even while the pandemic raged over the past two years, and even while the death rate drastically surged across the island late into 2021, my mother found emotional space to accommodate the havoc of Covid 19, and simultaneously plan for her then upcoming 100th birthday festivities. Her mental acuity never wavered, containing parallel and opposing notions of life in the midst of death. She empathized with those who lost loved ones; attended funerals and services on Zoom, marveling at the new technology; paid attention to news reports and pandemic precautions; yet also retained her exuberance about life. Her life. With her usual focus on how she puts herself together, she gave detailed attention to her birthday party outfit, during the same span of time as she selected an appropriate dress to set aside for her funeral. She didn’t eschew reality after all. Her enviable sense of fashion will serve her to her grave. What she wears to an event is not going to be left to chance whether birthday party or burial. Definitely burial. Her beloved Catholic church has relaxed the rules about cremation, but she thinks she has earned the right to disagree with the Pope on that score.

She will not be Denied the joy of old Age

Curfew, lockdowns and mask-wearing derailed the magnitude of the planned birthday fête. Still, when her centenary date drew near at the start of 2022, pandemic notwithstanding, my mother's celebratory spirit managed to prompt her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren into action. To respect the limitations on gatherings, she stretched her partying and hosting of visitors over a three-day period. She left her house and attended Mass at church rather than online, on the early morning of her birthday. Her blessing had to be received in person. The gratification in her voice can’t be missed when she reminds us that she is the first member of both sides of the family to make it to one hundred years. She married my father during the 2nd World War, gave birth to eight children, and lived through her fair share of hardships. She will not be denied the joy of old age.

Young-Old VS Old VS Old-Old

Scientists who study aging describe people who attain my parents’ age – getting beyond 85, as the “old-old” – a doubling down on the word “old” which used by itself is reserved for those between 75 and 84. If you are between 60 and 74, your descriptor is “young-old” – a pleasing oxymoron if ever there was one. My father lived a rewarding life, worked hard, provided for his family, and saved enough to enjoy some pleasures when he finally retired, including a meticulously planned trip to Disneyworld with my mother when he was 70, and she 61. Admittedly, back then, we their children thought of them as old people. Our ignorance was sublime! They were actually “young-old” at the time. My father’s philosophy about life and death evolved as he arrived at his “old-old” years. He was ready to take his leave at 94. Nature obliged. His death certificate gave cause of death as “old age” – they could have stated “old-old age” if they followed the language of the social scientists. My father was neither senile nor suicidal. He accepted Nature would eventually take its course. I can’t help but wonder if he willed it to be at the time he wanted.

Quality Of Life Is More Than about the Physical Body

Physical changes that come with aging definitely contribute to a deterioration in an older person’s quality of life. However, quality of life is more than about the physical body. The final conversation I had with my father revealed vulnerabilities about his quality of life that were more psycho-social. All his friends had already long passed on. Cyclical family gatherings can be insufficient for an older person with a keen mind, to carry them through the many other days of nothingness. Sports and Politics can fall apart. Watching TV all day gets old too. What’s an elderly man in his 90s to do? Many cultural traditions train men away from emotional involvement, household and family tasks, or social leadership, leaving them slightly adrift in their older years. The days can be lonely and the nights long in the evening of life. In the western world, women outlive men as a matter of course. For the most part women can find activities to keep themselves occupied right up to age 100 and beyond – that is if they are also lucky enough to retain health of body mind and spirit. My mother is the flagbearer, sustained by faith, family, and friends.

The Legacy of Good Genes is Just a Bonus

Bear in mind though that genetic luck is only part of your overall health picture as you age. Genetics can be credited with some of the groundwork. The rest is up to you to avoid or manage chronic illnesses and debilitating conditions, and to be the curator of your emotional stability, your lifestyle, your immediate environment, your intellectual stimulations, your social activities, connections, relationships and friendships. The global chaos and threats of encroaching madness and mayhem may be outside of your control. The key is to find a quiet space within yourself to keep your finger on the pulse of who you are at the core. It is unfortunate that so many among our old and old-old citizenry will end up spending their waning years warehoused in a caretaking facility stripped of their personhood while somewhere, someone is counting down the days. My father benefitted from the luck of the draw, aging in place in his own home of 40 years, maintaining his dignity and dying a “good” death. My mother continues apace. It’s less important that we, her children, should gain gratification from simply having a parent who is still breathing at 100 plus years, and more essential for her to be the whole person, alive, alert, contented and served by her longevity. A legacy of good genes is just a bonus, albeit a great kickstart to the business of living a long and healthy life.

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