What Centenarians Can Tell You About Life


“Kathleen” by Norbert Schaum

Recently a yoga friend told me she’d been away, visiting her 100-year-old aunt. All of her father’s sisters had lived to be in their 90s, she said. Despite being born in 1916, long before the Great American Yoga Revolution, her centenarian relative was still clear-minded and gave her an incredible perspective on life. Clean living, good genes, and a positive attitude seemed to be the causes for such longevity.

In my early 20s, I said, I spent a little time with a woman who was 104. Her name was Kathleen, and she was a canteen girl in WWI. Canteen girls were sponsored by charity organizations to boost morale among the soldiers by doing things like passing out hot chocolate and coming up with entertainments to remind them of their mothers, sisters, and sweethearts back home.

Kathleen was clear enough to talk about her canteen days sometimes, but mostly she operated in a semi-clear state where she lived, a completely seedy nursing home. She could walk but often got lost in her closet, where she would fall asleep on a pile of clothes, only to be found hours later by the nursing home staff. Because of her age, she was something of a stop on tours of the place. People would poke their head in her door to gawk at the ancient woman; indeed, that’s how I met her with my Do-Gooder Friend.

At the time, Do-Gooder and I were young and broke, but after we met Kathleen we decided we wanted to take her to lunch, to put a little cheer in an otherwise depressing situation. Before we knew it, we had scraped up enough money to take her out in style—we rented a limo, bought her roses, and even gave her a glass of white wine, strictly against the rules of her caretakers. They told us lots of times before we left not to give her alcohol—but we didn’t care.

To be fair, Kathleen didn’t reveal any deep secret to life that might help guide me or Do-Gooder. Instead, she buried her head in her very long fingers, crying, “I’ve lived too long.” She had outlived every meaningful person in her life, only to wind up on a closet floor much of the time.

Who knows what about living forever (and no point in ruling it out), but it’s easy to see the contrast of beginnings and endings when I look at my 18-month-old grandson, Luke. His dad texted me a video yesterday of their vacation in Key Largo; in it, the smallest person I know personally is experiencing a dive shop for the very first time; everything, from air tanks (“What’s that?”), to the safety floats (“What’s that?”), an electronic gauge (“Whoa!”), and a big tropical fish tank (“Look!”), is intensely cool.

Luke dive shop Key Largo

Everywhere my grandson casts his eyes, he sees something worth writing home about—in fact, I’d hazard a guess that this one single day of his short life is packed with more small miracles and laughter than most of us adults can remember stringing together over the last five years.

With that knowledge, you might think the toddler room at any daycare would be a hot stop for visitors seeking understanding. But no worker would ever pull a visitor aside and say, “Hey, dude, you wouldn’t believe who we have in this place—some of the youngest people on earth—wanna take a peek!?!” But maybe they should.

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