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The Human Experience

With life expectancy possibly increasing, even a 100-year-old woman isn’t sure what she would do with another 10 years.

At 100 years old, there are only three things that Perky Stealy can’t do: change the lightbulbs in her home, cook like she used to, and plant flowers in her yard. But she never had a green thumb anyway, she says.

She lives alone off a quaint road next to her alma mater, Ball State University. On Mondays, she plays Bridge at 11 a.m. with the same group she has played with for years. Wednesday is a meeting with her women’s club she has been a member of since 2003. And Thursday, well, she just might skip Wheel of Fortune to meet up with a friend. Other days, she might drive her 2002 Buick Regal up to the grocery store, or the library for more books.

Her years on Earth are a blessing, Perky says, and one she thinks is a mixture of God, a good attitude, and the series of small exercises she does every morning: leg lifts and knee raises before she even leaves her bed.

And after the exercises, she calls her daughter in Pensacola, Florida, to tell her the same thing she does every morning—she’s made it through another night.

According to a United Nations report, there are now more than 900 million people in the world over the age of 60. The current oldest human alive is Violet Mosses Browne, at age 117. The oldest person to ever live in history (on record using a Western calendar’s measurement of time) was Jeanne Louise Calment, who lived to be 122 years old. That’s 22 whole years on Perky, and a whole lifetime on me. While that’s impressive, the real marvel is that humans are living to be older than originally thought possible—a trend some doctors believe will continue.

Today, Perky being 100 is not necessarily normal. But it’s also not that shocking.

According to an article by the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, being healthy in old age can’t be defined as someone not having a disease because the likelihood of having a diagnosable disease in old age is so high. Rather, health should be examined by how uncomfortable their conditions are, so basically the quality of living with conditions that are inevitable with getting older.

For example, Perky may not be considered healthy because she had cataracts two years ago. Her vision became blurry as the lens in her eyes clouded. She eventually had to get surgery to remove them.

Now, she takes vitamins in order to help with her eyesight. A small tablet for eyesight is just one of many she takes every morning. Others include a multivitamin, one for improving memory, and Biotin for her bones, hair, and skin. Not all are doctor recommended, she says. In fact, after getting blood work done, she decided to start taking many of them and has done so for years. Not necessarily what the doctor ordered, but Perky says she ran it by him.

This active choice in almost owning the responsibility of her health has for sure given Perky some extra years.

No one factor guarantees someone will live long. But Adrienne Newman, a Ball State social work instructor, has found a few common qualities among the elderly.

It starts with good genes, she says. So basically, Perky got it from her parents. They lived to be in their 80s, but, still, they couldn’t have foreseen this fate for her.

“I just know they’re up there in heaven saying, ‘Perky’s time is up.’ I just know they’re saying, ‘Where the heck is she?’”

It really is odd, she says, that she’s been able to live as long as she has. She hasn’t done anything special.

Perky functions well enough to live alone at 100. But not without her Life Alert button strung along a golden necklace, tucked under her neckline, just in case—something her grandson insisted on, but Perky says she wouldn’t have sought out herself.

“You know that ‘doing it for yourself’ women’s poster? I am just doing it for myself,” she says.

Her ranch house looks mostly how it did when her husband, Dick, lived there with her. He died in 2004. Photos of the couple line a large wall in the living room. One sits between two matching blue chairs.

Perky and her husband, Dick, met at Ball State University in 1937.

The two met in 1937 when dates were a walk down the street because everyone was broke during The Great Depression. They formed a relationship through friends during their time at Ball State and specifically the student hangout, the Talley-Ho. Running her hand across his handwriting in her college yearbook, she reads, “I’ll be missing you Sunday mornings at 10:30.” Church was another date in a financially hard time.

He was always so funny, she says.

When Perky talks about Dick, you can see happiness rather than sorrow.

The way someone handles tragedies can also affect longevity, Newman says. If the person stays positive, that happy attitude can help them live longer.

That’s the only secret Perky will let slip. Being positive is everything to her. Through everything, even her husband’s death, she continues on.

Newman says the type of job someone has matters, too. What a person does on a daily basis can influence physical health. For example, performing jobs like construction work that involve daily physical labor will take a different kind of toll on the body than, say, being an elementary and special education teacher like Perky.

But Perky is no stranger to the risks of jobs that do demand physical labor. Her son broke his back on a construction site. He died earlier this year after a heart attack. Newman says that kind of unexpected loss can also hurt someone’s chances of living long, depending on how they handle it.

But Perky didn’t let his death consume her. Perky and her son’s son have had each other to lean on. He stops by often, tweaking things around her house in any way to make her life a bit easier, including taping a paper with written station numbers over her home radio’s faded markings. Like a true woman of the past, she prefers to listen to the soft lull of a radio rather than her television as she crochets in a living room chair.

Her home is an average suburban house, but its open layout makes it feel large. Almost too large for a 5-foot-2-inch woman like Perky.

“You know I used to be 5-foot-6,” she says with a smile. She must have shrunk, she figures. Now she stands just a bit hunched over, her spine seeming to have bent with gravity. Her bones have definitely changed over time, especially in her hands.

Creating extravagant meals from the recipes in her cookbooks is a thing of the past for Perky. That’s why her daughter has Schwan’s frozen dinners delivered to the house. The pot pie is delicious, so Perky doesn’t mind.

She also used to be a skilled pianist. Her brother had a lovely voice, and while she did not, she did know how to carry a tune on the piano. That was before her bones changed, she says. She can’t lift her arms quite like she used to because of issues with her rotator cuff.

That problem hasn’t just stopped her piano playing. In order to brush her hair, Perky must use her left hand to hold up her right arm, which holds the brush. Using two arms, she is able to style her hair each morning.

Not being able to do the things you used to can be a harsh reality to aging. And while her lifestyle may have halted some changes, others are inevitable.

Perky celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year with her family coming in from states as far away as California.

The piano still sits against a wall of her living room. Some of the pictures sitting on its wood lid are of her and Dick. Others are of various grandchildren, some of which attended her 100th birthday party in early September. The oldest person in attendance was of course Perky, and the youngest was her 3-year-old great-granddaughter, Charlotte.

Family, it seems, remains the main joy in Perky’s life.

Her family doesn’t live in Muncie, but her grandson, who travels between Indiana and surrounding states, often stops in. And any of her family members are welcome. That’s what the guest bedroom is for.

This social life might very well be another longevity trick Perky has up her sleeve.

S. Homes Hogue, a professor of anthropology at Ball State, noted that humans are wired to be social. It is a trait we gained in evolution. Loneliness is one of the leading factors in death of geriatric patients. Hogue says she can see where no social life could lead to perhaps depression, loss of appetite, and maybe make one more susceptible to diseases.

Humans naturally want to feel needed and like they are a part of something. Newman sees this in the groups she cares for. If someone had a friend in the group, they rarely missed a session, thinking, “Well, I need to go because so-and-so needs me there to play cards.”

Perky is definitely needed. She belongs to many communities, including an older-aged group in her church. They call themselves ALOE—“A Lot Of Experience”—with Perky having the most experience.

While being social does prevent feeling isolated, it also can bring the threat for diseases. Caity Leonardson-Placek, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ball State, says that being exposed to a lot of other humans also increases our chances of becoming sick.

Perky has been to fortunate to not run into terminal diseases in her life. But that is more a stroke of good luck than her own doing.

Humans are in constant competition with parasites and infectious diseases, Leonardson-Placek says. Whether or not one contracts a disease like the Zika virus is not a lifestyle choice such as choosing to smoke or maintaining good nutrition.

Americans tend to live with this idea that we are immune to diseases like these because we are a more developed country than others, Leonardson-Placek says.

But in reality, we are living longer in countries like America because we have eradicated most infectious diseases within our environment.

Maintaining a livable environment is not exclusive to humans. Siegfried Hekimi, a professor at McGill University and researcher of the biology of aging, says life expectancy differences can be compared to certain insects. Termites, for instance, will create an environment for their queen to live in. The queen might live for decades, while the workers live just months or weeks. The entire colony tends to and helps create a livable environment for the queen, allowing her to live longer. There will not be an infectious bacteria on her skin, as the workers have cleaned it away.

While many Americans do face diseases, the main factors that play a role in our lifespans are within our control, such as Perky preventing herself from becoming isolated. Psychological and social factors can influence how well someone ages. These factors can include religious beliefs, relationships, perceived health, socioeconomic status, and coping skills, according to the Industrial Psychiatry Journal.

Hogue studies skeletal biology that ranges from as old as 1,000 years ago, to 600,000 years ago. In these bones, she sees a lot of osteoporosis, which can be linked to not having a good diet.

Osteoporosis is still a problem today. But with modern medicine we seem to have a better grasp on its prevention.

Humans have also learned to control their environments. While not everyone can have a colony of devoted workers to help us live on, innovations like air conditioning definitely help prevent things like overheating.

This fits within a factor we can control: our lifestyles. We can choose if we get up each morning to take a walk, and we can control whether or not we eat vegetables. People are living longer because we are aware of our health and taking control of the factors that can limit our years. We are conscious of it.

As Perky is. Her father instilled good habits in her, she says. A family doctor, Perky’s father taught her about health from a young age. As a little girl she dreamed of becoming a nurse and working alongside him, and she worked in a health office in college.

His medicine cabinet sits in a corner of her living room. The more than 100-year-old cabinet used to be filled with vials and remedies that were once the best in medicine. Now, glass dishes her mother used and family heirlooms line its shelves.

Perky reckons that her family can sell everything in her home when she’s “through with them.” Each corner of the living room reflects a different part of the last 100 years. Atop her father’s cabinet sit Japanese dolls from a church mission trip back in 1983. Small vases from a Japanese glass shop adorn a shelf following the stairs to the basement.

She likes to show off her collection. But when they get to the staircase, most people tense up, afraid to let Perky tackle what could be a looming death trap. But it’s all silly. She knows to hold the banister.

The desire to challenge herself is another key to Perky’s years. Those higher in age shouldn’t limit themselves, Newman says. These challenges can be physical or mental, such as finishing the crossword in the morning paper to keep her brain on its toes.

Perky definitely doesn’t limit herself, except for with a few things, like cleaning her house. She has someone come clean once a month.

But she will always do her own laundry, and she does her best to keep things tidy in case she has guests. In the past, those guests were fellow church members attending her signature Christmas parties. These days, her house guests are her neighbors, one of which she considers her best friend. These friendships are necessary for Perky in her old age. A recent power outage wiped out their whole block, and it wasn’t too long before neighbors came to check on her. When she leaves to visit her daughter in Florida, her neighbors keep an eye on her house.

She isn’t as busy as she used to be, but Perky isn’t lonely, and she looks forward to her mornings playing cards with friends. But everywhere she goes, she feels like she’s from a different time than most people she sees now.

That’s the weird thing for Perky: She’s almost always the last alive. She’s the last of her siblings, the last of her friends from college, and the last of her marriage. The youngest of six, Perky says it’s strange to be the last one around.

Her childhood was different than those of her great-grandchildren. She still can’t believe one of them has a room in their house dedicated only to toys. Her childhood was happy, with five older siblings and a modest upbringing.

In 1917, when Perky was born, we didn’t have half of the life-improving technology we do now. Not all the advancements during Perky’s life have been related to health—using the phone without having to ask for an operator is nice, she says, but most likely hasn’t given her any extra years.

But things like vaccinations and indoor plumbing, both developments from the past 100 years, might have done the trick.

If humans can control the environment in which we age—using technology to make our lives better, much like worker termites do for their queen—the question arises of how long we can actually live.

As of now, we don’t know if there’s a cap on that. But it seems reasonable that human life expectancy will eventually reach a limit, Hekimi believes.

Some other experts don’t agree. Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, announced in a TED Talk that someone living today could very well live to be 1,000 years old. He believes aging is a “disease” that can someday be “cured.”

Hekimi says that sounds nice, but he doesn’t think it’s possible. Just because the statistics don’t show a limit right now doesn’t mean there isn’t one. In Hekimi’s opinion, it’s just not likely that the maximum lifespan could increase from what it is now to 1,000 years. But he’s still open to new ideas and research—when it comes, that is.

Some doctors think we’ve already reached our limit. Jan Vijg, a professor of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, published an article in 2015 that said human bodies could not live past 115. Hekimi disagrees that the cap is for sure 115 years old.

But things do deteriorate, says Hogue. When studying the skeletal system it is clear to see that over time it grows and then it degenerates. This is true of all organs, she says. For example, we have degenerative heart failure because the heart just wears out.

It’s a part of aging, unfortunately, which Hekimi points out as a negative thing.

But most people don’t complain about living longer, Hekimi says. Current humans have a lifespan three times what they used to. We are old at 60, but the majority of 60 year olds are able to do a lot of the things they always have been.

With nothing showing a current limit on how long humans can live, only time can tell.

Which makes someone like me, 21 years old, wonder how long I could live. With some factors being my own luck and genetics, and others being my lack of self-control around chocolate pastry items, it is up in the air. I have to wonder if I did live past 115, what my quality of life might look like. For the woman who was 122 years old, Hogue makes a good point: Was Jeanne Louise Calment’s life worth living, or was every day a struggle?

There comes a question of which is the exception and which is the rule. How many years we get is not necessarily in our control, and neither is the quality of those years.

Perky attended Ball State University in 1937 and still lives down the street from the campus.

Then there’s Perky. She is an anomaly of sorts, and the last of a generation. She spends her days tending to the tasks she keeps track of on the paper calendar next to her landline phone. If someone calls, it’s usually her grandson telling her he’s on his way to visit. Sometimes it’s an old friend calling up to take her out to lunch.

She is happy, not lonely, and just thankful for every morning she gets up.

Does she want another 100 years? No. Another 20? Five will be just fine, she says. Or just enough to see her youngest great-grand children become teenagers.

But even that might be too long, she says. She’s ready to see her husband again.

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