Healthy social life, healthy old age

Mississippi Winn, the oldest African-American in the U.S., recently passed away at the impressive age of 113 – and she always felt young. People all over the world are fascinated with men and women who live to age 100 and beyond. They envy all that these centenarians have seen and experienced, and they hope they can live such long, rich lives too. We at the @Legacy blog team are impressed, too – so much so that we’re dedicating this week’s blog posts to centenarians. We start off with some thoughts on how a healthy social life can lead to a healthy old age.

Each day, we receive thousands of newspaper notices. As screeners, we check each of these notices when they are first received to ensure they “look right”—meaning accurate data was received and is set to display correctly online. During this task, the attention is set on mundane details, such as name prefixes, image sizes, etc. While these details aren’t ones that typically capture the essence of the deceased, they are important nonetheless.

Despite being focused on such details, I’m often drawn to obits that stand out in some way and find myself thinking about the person described within. In particular, I tend to notice obituaries for anyone around the age of 100. I’m in awe of centenarians. I see their lives as success stories, and believe they are the lucky ones to have lived so many years. Perhaps they have done something right to get there. And I often find myself wondering what that “something” could be.

I’ve learned that centenarians, while a miraculous group, also share some ordinary characteristics. Some of these are not surprising – like their daily lives include exercise and good food choices. Other traits are more subtle — like the fact that centenarians typically have strong family and support networks. It seems the ability to live a long life has as much to do with one’s emotional health as physical health. Perhaps no surprises there, either.

Sometimes I am able to read about a centenarian’s life if a lengthy obit is written for them. More often, though, the notices for centenarians are only one line. A name, an age, a funeral home. I’m left to wonder about the details of their long, long life. All they’ve done and seen, what it was like to be born before telephones were commonplace, to grow up before televisions were invented, to retire before telecommuting was ever an option.

Personally, I kind of like the sound of that. These days we connect with each other easily, and at times, I find myself questioning if all this technology is such a good thing. Wasn’t life more authentic, somehow, without all this?

While it’s easy for me to romanticize life before technology, the reality is technology offers many benefits. While I can’t always share the mundane (and funny) details of my life with friends and relatives in person, I can update my status on Facebook. Though I couldn’t give my childhood friend a hug after her mom died (as she no longer lives across the street) I could sign her mother’s online Guest Book. And unlike a traditional Guest Book, which is usually available and signed only once, the online Guest Book remains accessible, sometimes permanently. I’ve often seen people continue to check in with one another in the Guest Books, day after day, year after year. The online Guest Book has become more than a record of one-time condolences – it’s now a perpetual gathering place.

While these may not be the ways people have always connected with one another, they are valuable nonetheless. And while individually these things may seem insignificant, as a whole they represent new and powerful ways for us to create and maintain social connections. Perhaps these are not entirely unlike the strong family and support networks that centenarians spend their lives building? It’s not surprising, then, that we are finding the happiest and healthiest retirees are those that, among other things, have embraced social media. Maybe they, too, will make it to 100.

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