ST. CLAIRSVILLE-If you lived to be 100, what events would you have seen? Where would you be, and what would you remember?
To put a centenarian's age in perspective, the oldest average life expectancy in the world is Japan's at 82.6.
The average American lives to be 78.61. Life expectancy varies slightly throughout the United States and District of Columbia. An Ohioan's life expectancy, ranked 38, is currently averaging 77.52 years, and West Virginians, ranked 50, average 75.16 years.
Ruth, left, and Mildred, both 99 years old, share some of their stories and lessons as they approach the century mark.
Someone who is 100 years old today would most likely remember World War I and may have had family members serving. He or she would have been a teenager during the Great Depression, and may have been raising a family during the Second World War. Think of the advances just in transportation since the early 1900's: from Charles Lindbergh to Neil Armstrong on the moon; from Henry Ford to hybrids; the Queen Mary and the Concorde. These decades saw a communication and media revolution: radio, movies, television and computers.
A count in 2010 totaled 70,490 centenarians in the U.S., or approximately one in 4,400 people. There are four ladies at or close to this benchmark residing at a St. Clairsville assisted living facility who had a lot to say about their lives and what they've learned over the last century.
Virginia, age 101, was born and raised in Belmont. Her father was on the school board when she and her five siblings grew up, and he signed all of their diplomas. When she got married, she moved to a farm in Adena raising goats, beef, pigs, chickens and all kinds of produce. A mother to three children, Virginia says she enjoyed farm life, though it was hard work. "I had a good husband. We worked together on the farm. I canned everything I could get my hands on."
She still owns a farm in Morristown that family members maintain. She says she has grandchildren "all over the place" and a great, great grandson in Okinawa, Japan.
Ruth, 99, has also lived here her whole life, born in Deep Run and later moving to Yorkville. Married young, she had two children, a girl and a boy, and worked at the Martins Ferry Hospital as a lab assistant for 39 years. She says she "loved the flowers" that she nurtured in her garden and liked keeping a clean house-doing laundry, making the beds and dusting. She and her husband were married for 59 years before he passed away.
For Mildred and Ruth the Great Depression stands out as having the most impact on their lives. "Looking back you see how hard things were," says Mildred. "Our whole family had to move to my grandpa's farm. You couldn't get a job-no one could. We all had to work on the farm. We had nowhere else to go."
Ruth met her husband at her sister's house during the Depression and relays it as one of her fondest memories. "I can still see him. He was wearing a blue shirt and white flannel pants, and one of those straw hats-a Panama hat. He was so handsome." She was 15, and they were married shortly after. "That's what you did in those days," she notes. "People married real young." They bought a fixer-upper house even though her husband "didn't know construction," and she helped dig the foundation and put running water in it.
In 1936 Ruth came down with rheumatic fever and had to be hospitalized. She remembers that her husband had to come up with a $75 deposit for her stay, which ended up totaling $32 plus $25 for the ambulance.
All of the women talk about early memories with friends and family (Virginia: making Valentines from wallpaper with a girlfriend; Mildred: picking apples and potatoes on the farm and swimming in the creek; Dorothy: spending time with her older brothers when they came home from school.)
Research on longevity reveals six indicators for increasing the chances of seeing 100 candles on your birthday cake. First, to an extent long life is hereditary and may have to do with certain genes.
People who live longer have led healthier lifestyles maintaining good cardiovascular health, not smoking and staying active, even as centenarians. The four women in St. Clairsville take daily walks in the halls and socialize. Virginia and Dorothy say they've never taken pills until these past few years. "I've taken more since I've turned 100 than I did during my whole life," notes Virginia. "I still don't think I need them."
Keeping the mind active is just as important. Dorothy loves crossword puzzles and adds, "I'll die if I get to the place where I can't read."
Doctors say a low-stress lifestyle will also extend one's life. Though farming, nursing and teaching may not be considered "low-stress," the women all enjoyed their work and stayed with it for many years.
Finally, research says spirituality and a sense of purpose play a big part in longevity, as does gratefulness. "You've come a long way, baby," Mildred quotes. "From being born with nothing to living in a place like this, you realize how far you've made it."
The others echo that sentiment. "I said I wouldn't be afraid of death if I could live to be 100," adds Dorothy.
"Now I'm 100, and I'm very grateful. It's a mystery to me. I'm far from perfect, but I'm very conscious of the fact that I've been truly blessed."
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.