Comments & Curiosities: Whether 105 or 114, 'You go, girl!'

Are you 100 years old? I'm not.

Alyce Hall, Newport Beach's most senior of senior citizens is, though. She's all of that and more.

Alyce, who lives at the Newport Beach Plaza retirement community, turned 105 last week. Not only did she look marvelous at her birthday party, but Alyce was totally hip and happening in a sparkling tiara and a bright red feather boa.

Gerontologists — people who think deep thoughts about people who look like me and try to figure out why things didn't go better — have been studying what they call the "old old" for a long time. The definition is a little vague, but it generally means folks who have pulled up beside 85 and now have it in their rear-view mirror.

But the group that fascinates me even more is centenarians, the 100-plus crowd, and especially the "super centenarians" — people who are 110 years and older, a group that Alyce Hall is closing in on fast. It's hard to wrap your head around that, no? How many 60-year-olds could imagine living another 50 years? And what about the folks who are beyond 110 and still haven't checked out of the grand hotel called life?

Do you remember Eunice G. Sanborn? I do. I told you about her last year when she was awarded the title of the oldest living person in the whole wide world at the jaw-dropping age of 114. Eunice died Monday at her home in Jacksonville, Texas.

You'll notice I didn't say "sadly" or "unfortunately."

When someone who is 114 gets the Big Text Message From the Sky, there's not much to say other than "You go, girl!" Just think about that — Eunice Sanborn was born in 1896, four years before the 20th century began, and she died last week. Incredible.

I also have very little to tell you about exactly how to live to be 114. Then again, nor does anyone else. Gerontologists have studied it to death — maybe we should use another expression — and clarity is hard to find when it comes to how and why people live to very old age.

But all this talk about how old is old depends on who's asking the question and when. If you take a look at "old" through the Way Back Machine, there are more than a few surprises.

In the Bronze Age, life expectancy was about 35 years. Talk about early retirement. If you made it to 35 you got a bronze watch, a new club and a plaque. Granted, there were a lot of things trying to eat you back then, but that is still awfully young to be old.

Later, in ancient Rome and Greece, things actually took a turn for the worse, with a life expectancy of 28 years, mostly due to endless wars in places no one could pronounce and lots of people living in cities without a clue about hygiene and health. Keep in mind that in those long-ago times, just making it out of your onesies and into long pants was dicey at best.

About 40% of children born in Colonial America never reached adulthood. And those wise old men in funny clothes and powdered wigs we call the Founding Fathers? Five of them were in their 20s, the great majority were 40 or younger with a handful in their 50s or 60s and Ben Franklin a virtual dinosaur at 70 years of age. Unheard of.

Over the centuries, life expectancy slowly moved upward then exploded during the 20th century, from 45 years to 67 years worldwide, mostly due to wonder drugs and finally cracking the code about public health.

I think that's it. Old, young or in-between, it's all a matter of how you look at it. Oh, almost forgot — who is the oldest living person now that Eunice Sanborn is gone? It's Besse Berry Cooper of Monroe, Ga., who is, yes, 114 years old.

"And if you should survive to 105, look at all you'll derive out of being alive."

Sinatra had no way of knowing a woman in Georgia would listen to those words and say, "God, what I wouldn't give to be 105 again."

Hang in there, Besse. You're only as old as you think you are, which in your case, is a lot.

I gotta go.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at ptrb4@aol.com.

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