When Robert Drewe was a young reporter, centenarians were so thin on the ground that when someone turned 100 he was sent to interview them. Australian readers, he disccovered, were keen to learn the secret of a long life.
“No secret!” the oldsters would cackle, sitting there nodding in their party hats, thus rendering their life story down to a mere photo caption. But I noticed they were all small, thin women (of the 100 longest living people on the planet, only six have been men) who’d led busy, abstemious lives and often had large doting families.
These days, of course, turning 100 is not unusual. So far, Jeanne Caiment of France (1875-1997, or 122 years and six months) is the oldest person ever. Emma Morano of Italy was giving her a run for her money until she died three months ago aged 117 years and five months, the last person on earth to be born in the 19th century.
Centenarians have been on my family’s minds ever since the oldest member turned 90 eight years ago, and surreptitious arrangements are starting to be made for the celebration.
At 98, the woman in question, a former teacher and a widow for 30 years, still looks after herself (with a compulsory wine at dinner time), reads a novel a week, plays bridge, gardens, watches and listens avidly to the ABC news, does the cryptic crossword and sudoko puzzles each day, and, unless restrained, and despite two hip replacements, will mow the lawn and fix a broken roof tile.
It’s pretty obvious what her secret is. But I looked up details of five of the oldest people on earth to see if they also had the answer.
The oldest person in the U.S, Adele Dunlap (113 ), of New Jersey, is baffled by her age. “I’ve never led an overly healthy lifestyle, or jogged, or anything like that. I smoked until my father had his first heart attack, and I eat anything I want. But I swear by oatmeal.”
While Spain’s oldest living person, Ana Maria Vela Rubio (115 ) has, according to her daughter, been kept alive by “her compassion for others and her positive attitude,” Japan’s oldest person until recently, Misao Okawa (117) said the key to longevity was “eating delicious things”, ramen noodles, beef stew, rice and mackerel sushi.
The world’s current oldest living person, Violet Brown (117), of Jamaica, would agree. Last year her son, Harold, who recently pre-deceased her at the relatively youthful age of 97, said his Baptist church-going mother “likes fish and mutton and mangoes and sometimes she will have cow foot.”
Back in the days when I was trying to interview centenarians, great excitement centred around their congratulatory telegrams from the Queen. “How wonderful of Her Majesty to keep up with Nanna’s life,” everyone said. Well, some of us thought our family’s 98-year-old, being of her generation’s royalist mindset, would appreciate regal recognition, too.
Inquiries discovered that the royal 100th birthday telegrams, in force since George V in 1917, actually ceased in 1982, replaced by a laser-printed card featuring a smiling picture of the Queen, a copy of her signature and the message, “I am pleased to know that you are celebrating your 100th birthday. I send my congratulations and best wishes to you on such a special occasion.”
Sadly, the Queen actually has no knowledge of your Nanna’s long existence. You have to apply to receive her good wishes. I’m quoting the Governor-General’s website here: “Congratulatory messages from Her Majesty The Queen and the Governor-General to those Australians celebrating the achievement of significant birthdays and wedding anniversaries are available on request.
“On request, Government House will arrange for a congratulatory message to be sent from both the Queen and the Governor-General to persons celebrating their 60th (Diamond) 65th and 70th (Platinum) and subsequent wedding anniversaries and 100th, 105th and subsequent birthdays.
“Requests for a message from The Queen and/or the Governor-General can be made through your local Federal Member’s electorate office or the Honours, Symbols and Territories Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.” Strict application instructions follow.
Did the queen send a message to her mother, who lived to be 101? Will she send congratulations to herself in eight years time?
Incidentally, Emma Morano credited her long life to her daily diet of three eggs. Nothing else. “I don’t eat much because I have no teeth.”
At age 20, diagnosed with anaemia, she started eating two raw eggs and one cooked egg every day. She’d lived alone ever since leaving her husband in 1938. “I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone,” she said.