Turning 100 In The Time Of Covid

Louie Gruenberg on his 100th birthday in Moorhead, MN - March 24, 2021 Photo courtesy of Kelly Goodejohn

Please meet Louie. Louie recently joined a very prestigious group – The Centenarians. This group of esteemed members is made up of ~73,000 in the US and ~575,000 worldwide. The members of this exclusive group were born in 1921 – 100 years ago. They have lived through the Roaring 20’s, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In the year they were born only 50% of US homes had electric lighting, only 20% had access to a telephone, and only 10% had a car. In 1921, the radio was an exciting new technology, unemployment was low, wages were high at ~$3.00/week and Prohibition was signed into law the year prior. Also born this year alongside Louie were Nancy Reagan, Bob Hope, George Burns and Irving Berlin. The Centenarians began life in a simpler time but have lived through some of the most tumultuous times in history.

Centenarians, while still a small proportion of the general population, are a growing group. According to the Pew Research Center, projections suggest there will be 3.7 million centenarians across the globe in 2050. This is an 8-fold growth rate within 30 years! Conventional wisdom would suggest that genes and medical history lead to long life, however, many recent studies conclude that while physiological traits such as high levels of HDL (good cholesterol) and lower, regulated levels of inflammation matter, factors such as strong social connections, well-managed stress, and staying mentally active may lengthen quality and duration of life. In a WebMD poll of centenarians, respondents overwhelmingly gave non- physical tips for thriving all the way to 100 - the top three were:

  • Stay close to your family and friends: 90%

  • Keep your mind active: 89%

  • Laugh and have a sense of humor: 88%

So, back to Louie...What is his secret to celebrating 100? According to Louie’s granddaughter, Kelly Goodejohn who helped orchestrate a cross-state, cross-time zone virtual “party” for her grandfather, his secret is no secret at all. When asked how he has lived so well to 100, Louie’s simple answer was, “I don’t know, it’s just how I am.” To help add some clues to Louie’s long, healthy life, Kelly shared that her grandfather has lived a simple life of hard work as a farmer, enjoyed daily meat and potatoes, has a generous and kind spirit, and partakes in card games or bingo with friends. Louie still lives independently in an assisted living community in Moorhead, MN with good mental and physical health, just a little trouble with his knees. Not bad for 100 years of walking and working hard!

Having his 100th birthday happen as we entered the second year of a global pandemic certainly created some challenges in celebrating the life of a much-loved man, but that did not stop his family from finding a way to throw him a party with the whole clan via a technology that was not even dreamed of at the time of his birth. The family Zoom call on March 24th connected family members from California, Washington, Minnesota, and New York. Louie joined from his apartment with the help of his daughter and son-in-law and, while delighted to see and hear all the birthday wishes, he could not get over the technology that brought them all together. In an effort to ensure he got the appropriate amount of attention for such an exceptional achievement, Kelly and a cousin asked their Facebook network to consider sending a birthday card to their grandfather for his special day. With hopes that extended family and some friends might send cards to equal 100 in celebration of his 100th, Louie and his granddaughters were blown away by the response of over 200 cards sent!

The joy and celebration of turning 100 during Covid followed a year of confusion and isolation for us all, but especially for our seniors. Assisted living and long-term care facilities shut their doors to visitors and families were either separated completely during this time or were extremely limited in how and when they could connect. Stories of window visits, plastic-barrier hugs, and emotional reunions have been commonplace across the country as families struggle to keep connected. And, while there certainly have been heartbreaking stories of separation and loss, a Journal of American Medical Association Network article cites that “approximately 8 months into the pandemic, multiple studies have indicated that older adults may be less negatively affected by mental health outcomes than other age groups.” Why might this be? The answer may lie in what they have survived and how they have thrived through their 100 years. Through economic disasters and world wars, centenarians like Louie have seen the highs and lows for generations and remained resilient in the wake of such events. Might this resilience be the strongest indicator for a long life lived well?

Whether or not you set 100 in your sights, the top three tips by centenarians for living a long life seem a good place to start and to end: stay close to your family and friends, keep your mind active, and laugh and have a sense of humor. Happy Birthday Louie and your esteemed club members!

Time is finite. Love is eternal. Forgiveness is everything.

By Laura Olson

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