December 5, 2002

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Author tells of the lessons learned from centenarians

Author Neenah Ellis, right, talked with Masako Yamano after Ellis's presentation on centenarians Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Senior Center.

In an age when people are living longer and longer, the world could use a few lessons about aging, author and journalist Neenah Ellis believes.

And during a presentation at the Senior Center Tuesday, Dec. 3, Ellis discussed what she had learned from centenarians.

“Everyone wants to know the secret of getting old, and the secret is there is no secret,” Ellis said before the presentation. “I learned a lot of different things from each one of them.”

But the deeper meaning for her, Ellis said, was more elusive.

Her research began in 1996 as a history project. Ellis had been a freelance producer for National Public Radio when she received a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to interview centenarians around the country about their lives. Over the following four years, she said, she met many elderly men and women whose stories and personal triumphs would affect her to an unforeseeable depth.

Along the way she met 101-year-old Anna Wilmot of Massachusetts, who went rowing every morning on the lake by her house and would sometimes skinny-dip when it was foggy.

“I tell you I’m something, aren’t I?” Wilmot said on a tape Ellis played during the presentation.

When she was in her 90s, Margaret Rawson of Maryland published a 65-year study on dyslexia and was still doing brain research when she was 102. Roy Larkin Stamper I of Locust Grove, Okla., used to ride 30 miles on horseback just to see a girl and at 103 felt that the greatest joy in life was sharing it with someone. Sadie and Gilbert Hill of Florida were married for 80 years and have no idea how they became the one couple in six million in which both partners would live to be 100.

In 2000 Ellis began broadcasting the stories she was collecting on NPR’s “Morning Edition” in a monthly series entitled “One Hundred Years of Stories.” Later, she published a book, If I Live to Be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians.

Ellis eventually recognized that knowing these people who had lived so long and so well meant much more to her than simply their historical perspectives.

“Knowing so many people at this age who were doing so well made me feel young and excited about getting older,” she said. “It made me think that at 60 I could still go white-water rafting, and later I could go back to school or get married again.”

She also gained inspiration by watching such independent elders retain their dignity while gracefully accepting help from others because of physical and mental limitations.

Wilmot, for instance, groaned from the pain of arthritis with each step she took down to her boat on the lake. But she kept rowing. Rawson used advanced computer equipment to read her research out loud when she could no longer see. But she kept reading and studying. They all overcame obstacles somehow to maintain social, active lives with purpose.

Many middle aged and elderly residents from Yellow Springs came to Ellis’s presentation to learn and gain inspiration from these teachers.

Masako Yamano, an Antioch College student in her 50s, came to see how different American elders are from those in Japan.

“These older people are so natural, they keep their sense of humor, positive thinking, and they are always with other people,” she said. “They enjoy the day to day. I like that.”

They also came to learn lessons they might apply to their own lives as they grow older. Yellow Springs resident Ann Koppelman reflected on the lives of the centenarians just after her 60th birthday.

“Their optimism and desire to live with a sense of humor and joy in the every day impressed me as I begin to think of myself as an older person,” she said.

The sense of optimism permeated throughout each of the centenarians’ stories and struck Ellis as one of the commonalities among them.

“These are not people who sit around and grouse,” she said. “They are forward looking and always active in their families and communities; they’re doers.”

Throughout her project, Ellis said, she noticed four other consistencies about all of the centenarians. They all seemed to have a passion, an idea or something larger than themselves toward which they were moving. They were resilient and shed stress easily. They were direct, and they were always sociable. They knew that being with others was good for them, she said.

As it turned out, Ellis realized the personal connection was good not only for them, but for her as well. The emotional bond between Ellis and her elders eventually deepened to a level she came to know as “limbic resonance,” the scientific explanation for the “innate ability of mammals to feel one another’s emotional state.”

“I came to realize that communicating with other people is really the only thing that matters, and they know it much better than we do,” she said. “Intellectually I didn’t know I was looking for this, but it has become something central, life altering for me.”

Since beginning the project, Ellis has presented the centenarians’ stories in many different forms of media, including the radio series and the book, magazine pieces, a Web site and photographs. She is now thinking about creating a film about the people she has met.

“In these times there are so many different ways to tell a story,” she said. “I just want people to see how they live their daily lives in such an amazing way.”

—Lauren Heaton