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Writer makes another centenarian friend, all the while pondering a wondrous trend

I have often wondered whether longevity is an elixir for those who love life.

Lately I have found myself pondering centenarians, how they give us joy for today and hope for the future. I have been blessed to be befriended by many centenarians in my beloved Fallbrook.

Come now, dear reader, as I introduce you to some and we together may we marvel over the mystery and magic of living to 100 and beyond.

My first friend to stretch her life well past 100 was cantankerous Betty Gilby, who earned a master's degree in nutrition and eventually joined the Army and came under enemy fire in North Africa and Italy. Her husband, Joseph, was held as a prisoner of war by the Germans.

Betty ended her work years as a school teacher, and she wore a crusty shell as her façade as she left her mark crisscrossing our community. I have Betty's self-published memoir tucked away in my file cabinet and a cloud-strewn watercolor of hers hanging on a bedroom wall of my home.

Still with us is melodious Bud Roberds, who taught music in Fallbrook schools and plunked the piano solo and in groups at numerous venues. I had the honor of serving with him on the Reche Club's governing board, and heard him play at our historic school house, congregate senior lunches and the Peking Wok restaurant.

More than 100 friends and family attended his 100th birthday celebration. He renewed his driver's license that same year. He gave up playing at the Wok a year or so ago. He's about 104 now, and faces still light up whenever he enters a room.

And then there's stately Lucy Sanders, whom I recently spotted at one of the senior lunches that are served weekdays at the Fallbrook Community Center. A newcomer might have speculated that Lucy was a visiting dignitary, as clusters of longtime friends took turns coalescing around her. She turned 103 on April 9.

Thus it was that a companion and I made a new friend of Betty "Kewpie" Rockwell, who is 104 and lives at Regency Fallbrook Assisted Living. Her dad sold Kewpie dolls at a carnival, and thus his young daughter earned her nickname because her hair curled like the popular toy.

My companion and I had the pleasure of joining Kewpie and her daughter, Vicky Bartlett, for a tasty Regency lunch recently.

As a child, Kewpie sang and danced at the Rialto theater when her dad sold tickets and her mom played the piano during silent movies. Kewpie's first job was working at her parents' diner. Then it was onto a dime store and a watch factory.

During World War II, Kewpie worked at a torpedo factory while her husband, George, served overseas. She used to sign the devices before they were shipped to the planes and submarines that attacked enemy ships.

Kewpie's faith remains a bulwark of her life. The Bible and a copy of the devotional book Jesus Calling anchor a shelf near one of the landscape paintings she did years ago.

During our visit, Kewpie pointed out that she has lived through more of humanity's greatest challenges than any other generation. Her cohort has experienced the Great Depression, the Spanish flu, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam and numerous other conflicts around the globe.

She has tracked tragic assassinations, the mind-stretching 60s, the moon landing, the advent of the internet, 9/11, cell phones, covid and now artificial intelligence. All of that in one lifetime.

It seems my friends are part of a trend.

Kari Moreno, Regency's executive director, said there were three centenarians living at her center earlier this year. There are now two. Kari's had six or seven centenarians living at Regency during her tenure there.

Longevity and active lives are commonplace these days, she said. Kari noted that some of Regency's residents take no medications and are still driving well into their 90s. "Isn't it remarkable?" she mused.

Indeed it is. When I was a teenager someone in their 60s was deemed old.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of centenarians has exploded from 2,300 in 1950 to 80,139 in 2020. Other data states that 68 people worldwide have indisputably reached 115, three of them are still alive today

In our country, centenarians make up less than 1% of the population. That means one in every 5,000 people reaches the age of 100, 85% of them are women.

But behold now the future.

According to British research, compared to babies born in 1931, children born in 2011 are nearly eight times more likely to live to be 100. Females of that generation have a one-in-three chance of becoming centenarians. Males have a one-in-four chance.

The Japanese are renowned for their long and active lives. Okinawan studies cite five factors that contribute to this achievement. The first factor was a diet rich in grains, fish and vegetables. Second was low stress lifestyles. Third was a setting where older adults are cared for and not isolated. Next came high levels of activity. And, finally, came spirituality.

We seem to need a sense of purpose that comes from involvement in spiritual matters and a mindset that prayer eases the burden of stress, pain and problems.

Can I get an amen to that?


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