The subtitle of the article in the WSJ is "To make it to 100: plenty of community, exercise, beans."
In our School Street Village, elders were honored and lived as fully integrated members of their extended families and the Village as a whole. Most every child I knew as I grew up had a grandmother or grandfather living with them. Those were not the days of Nursing Homes as we know them today.
The WSJ article focuses on a series of Villages in Sardinia which boasts 21 centenarians for every 10,000 people. Only about 4 in 10,000 Americans make it that far. These Villages are part of what scientists and physicians call "Blue Zones" around the world where there is far less chronic illness and a longer life span. Below is the cover photograph for the article.
One of the cornerstones, says the article, of dietary issues is the humble bean. Portuguese people love beans, especially the fava bean. Beans are inexpensive, easy to grow, and can be cooked with a variety of meats. Meats, though, do not account for large servings but accentuate the bean. When my grandmother Isobel was a child in St. Miguel she earned money for the family by working in the bean fields.
But, the dietary issues were not alone in explaining longevity and health status. A hallmark of the Villages was their closeness. Remember some time ago, I mentioned that in the School Street Village, women who grew up in the same Villages in the Azores or Madeira would gather to bake their bread together? So here in Sardinia where 5 generations of a family would get together to share their knowledge and experience in bread making and pass it on. But, the women in Sardinia did more, they chopped the wood and stoked the ovens. Perhaps, in the Azores and Madeira our grandmothers and great-grandmothers might have done the same. But, did you ever try kneading bread with your hands and arms...without the help of a food processor? Who needs Pilates if you are doing that for 45 minutes?
Here is one of our School Street Villagers from probably the 40's or 50's kneading bread. Her home was on Floral St. and she is sitting in the doorway of her summer kitchen working the dough. I love the intense expression on her face as her hands expertly turned and forced the dough into food to feed her family. Tradition carried from her original Village in the Azores or Madeira went into this simple act.
Life in these Sardinian Villages was/is very social, and that is where the big similarity comes in with my School Street Village. Our elders (I smile because our grandparents were probably younger than I am now) had their own social strata. These women would roam the Village, walking in sturdy shoes and in the summer perhaps their distinctive cover-all aprons. They would walk to a friend's house and sitting in the kitchen, or perhaps the porch would share stories of their childhoods or what was happening in their circle currently. My grandmother and her friends (sometimes a grandfather ) would spend hours like that, breaking out in laughter, maybe even tears and sighs. Then the visitor would gather her big black pocketbook and be off to the next house. They did not need stair masters (sometimes it was a second or third floor climb) or a treadmill. The would often gather at our Church. Church was a great place to meet and greet for our elders. Wakes always provided another occasion.
The next photograph is my Nana Delphina (left) and two of her friends back in the 50's visiting in our family home on School Street. The lovely lady in the middle often visited my Grandmother. They were both from Madeira. This lady lived with her son and his family down a very significant hill. She would have been into pretty good exercise going back and forth on her visits. My grandmother (as I mentioned elsewhere) was sort of a Village secretary to the elders. Often they could not read their letters and she would do it for them, or help them write back. She would perch her hat on her head, gather her bulky handbag with her supplies and set off. It would take her quite a while as she would meet and chat with other friends on other porches along the way.
I noticed on the WSJ newspaper photo: the hair pulled simply back in a neat bun. These elders, there and in my Village had no time for hair stylists, nor for shopping sprees. Neither the time, nor the money. Anyway, their days were too full of social events. A sweater thrown over a shoulder was enough to go chat over a neighborhood fence or during an evening walk.
Some statistics from the WSJ- "In the U.S.you are likely to die eight years earlier if you are lonely compared with those with strong social networks." The article goes on to say that in those villages in Sardinia, "...parents and grandparents move serenely into old age, secure in the knowledge that their children will care for them." Like our parents and grandparents in the Village, there were/are no treadmills, health gyms, dietary counseling organizations. A robust, active life took care of all that. My mother spent time cooking, hanging clothes on the line in all kinds of weather and then picking them afterward, gardening, canning and sewing...and on and on. When I say gardening I mean Gardening with a capital G. Putting up grape juice and grape and blueberry jam, cooking pies in big batches so that they were available all winter (and entertaining the friends of her four children). My grandmother had her walking/secretarial route, she washed and ironed and delivered (on foot) the altar linens for our Church for years and years. She made her way to wakes and funerals of friends gone before her. That meant a long afternoon at the wake socializing and remembering the dear deceased. The WSJ write-up stated that every 20 minutes the folks in Sardinian villages were nudged into physical activity.
It seemed then as in the Sardinian villages that there was no rancor that an elder grandparent lived with the family of a son or daughter. It just was expected and normal. As children were cherished, our elders were cherished.
No over the counter supplement can substitute for family. When my elderly mother-in-law knew that her health was deteriorating and she lived alone, she decided to go into a Nursing Home right in her town. She was one of 14 children. Though her failing mind was slipping, one or another of her siblings came every single day, most days taking her to lunch, or just for a ride around her beloved neighborhood. She was always part of the family she knew and loved. Her children were there as well, cherishing her and motivating her to share her many stories, and just to love her. Love makes the difference, and faces that are so often there it becomes hard to forget them.
My husband and I are far from family (thankful for Facebook cell phones, etc.) but we are blessed. We live on a small island off the coast of northeastern Florida. Small island - tight friendships and support groups. Our new parish has become a haven for many of us seniors, our talents are appreciated, our voices are heard. Happily, technology helps us all to stay connected and sometimes (wow) a written note gives us delight and connectedness.
We in the USA and perhaps elsewhere are part of a throw-away culture...too often elders find themselves in just that situation. Growing up in the School Street Village, I learned as a small child as I was passed from the arms of one Aunt to another with loving hugs, that it is cherishing that we all need- from one end of our lives to another.
Funny, back then, nobody thought of retiring and leaving for another place.
The Wall Street Journal Article:
Related Past Posts on this subject you may find interesting: