Old enough to know better

It's a lovely irony: Gertrude Baines, 114, the world's oldest person, lives in L.A., the world's most youth-obsessed city. It's like finding a vintage Ferrari in a parking lot full of Yugos.

During the 20th century, we added almost three decades to the average human life expectancy. What are we doing with these extra years? Are we making good use of them, or just soliloquizing about other, better times or the fascinating intricacies of our various maladies? In the example of Gertrude Baines, the answer is the former.

She lived independently (with a caretaker's help) until she broke her hip at 107. This daughter of former slaves -- in her lifetime she has seen women win the right to vote, and blacks reclaim it -- cast her ballot for President Obama ("I didn't never think I'd live this long"). She makes it clear she bears no regrets about her life and holds no secret of longevity. She paints a portrait of old age whose hallmarks are wit and acceptance. I salute her.

It's commonly said -- but I believe it anyway -- that old folks are wise. Indeed, for many over the age of 70, old age is, outside of medical maladies, of course, a time of self-fulfillment and self-mastery, a time when they are more themselves than ever. The reasons for this vary. For some, it's a question of having more time to self-reflect; for others, it may be a product of having thrown off societal constraints, or of simply being more conscious of their diminished time on the planet.

Our cultural landscape is currently graced with a group of creative people over 70 who critics say are doing some of the best work of their careers -- Philip Roth, Joan Didion, sculptor Louise Bourgeois and composer Elliott Carter. It would be presumptuous to ascribe their continued successes to one single reason, and yet it's hard not to conclude that perhaps practice really does make perfect.

It's even possible to follow this tendency toward self-mastery all the way to the end of life. If we look at various people's last words, it's fascinating how inimitable and self-describing so many of them are. Oscar Wilde died in a flophouse with the quip, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do" -- a statement so Wildean it's almost parody. Henrik Ibsen spent his career scandalizing the Victorians; on his deathbed, when his nurse remarked that he was looking better, Ibsen replied, "On the contrary," and then died. Or consider P.T. Barnum ("How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?"), Flo Ziegfeld ("The show looks good!") or Timothy Leary ("Why not? Yeah.")

Aging itself is a product of civilization. First by wiping out our predators and then by making advances in medicine, humans have given themselves the opportunity to grow old. If being old is all bodily pains and reduced eyesight and faulty wiring -- and don't get me started on the topic of dermal creping -- then why, anthropologically and evolutionarily speaking, would we have bothered to grant ourselves this "opportunity"? Vanity alone seems insufficient cause.

I would argue that man has accorded himself long life because elders serve an important role in society. As an old African saying runs, "The death of an old person is like the burning of a library." These living libraries are among our greatest sources of wisdom.

As with truth or beauty or genius, wisdom can be difficult to define. Maybe it's like pornography -- you know it when you see it. But I think T.S. Eliot got close to a working description when he wrote in "Four Quartets," "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is humility/Humility is endless."

Gertrude Baines exhibits some of this endlessness. May it increase.

Henry Alford is the author of "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)."