Upbeat attitude lets nonagenarians age gracefully

March 11, 1992|By Jill Keech | Jill Keech,Newport News Daily Press

HAMPTON, Va. Alice James delivers hot meals to elderly shut-ins, plays bridge and Scrabble, and "bums around" at the mall each Friday with her best girlfriend -- after lunch out, of course. At age 90, there's little she doesn't do.

"I plan to deliver meals-on-wheels as long as my car and I hold out," says Ms. James, who pays her own bills, does church work and keeps up with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When she turned 90 Nov. 30, there were three parties to mark the milestone.

"You don't get to be 90 but once," says Ms. James, who has a firm handshake, a steady gait and an infectious giggle. She's in love with life, and it shows.

An upbeat attitude is part of what allows older people to remain active, says Carole Shamblen, clinical nurse specialist with the Riverside Quality Aging Center in Newport News, Va.

"I have seen people who are depressed, and who have just sat down and given up. Within a few months, they're gone. They don't have any reason for living," Ms. Shamblen says.

Not so with Ms. James, or some of her local contemporaries who also are nonagenarians -- in their 90s.

A. Louis Drucker, Lillia Caldroney and Rena Kates, all of Newport News, Va., are 93, 97 and 93 respectively. At 95, E. Ralph James, who's no kin to Alice James, is the oldest living graduate of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"There's always something to keep you busy," says the retired lawyer, who remains active at William and Mary events, likes to walk and starts each morning with a bowl of oatmeal and honey.

What are some of the other secrets to longevity?

Genes, of course, play a big part. Alice James' mother, for example, lived to be 91; her father 88. Her older sister, who lives in Mathews, Va., is 92.

"If your parents lived into their 90s, you have a good chance of living into your 90s, as well," says Ms. Shamblen, a registered nurse. "But that's not something we can control."

What can be controlled, and what contributes to quality living, is lifestyle. His long-life patients "take life as it comes," says Hoskote S. Nagraj, a Hampton-area doctor specializing in geriatric medicine. "They don't let stress bother them very much. They've a flexible mind and attitude."

"I think I have a pretty good attitude -- bend with the wind, flow with the tide," says Alice James. In other words -- stay loose and don't let things get you down. She doesn't. Never has.

"I've lived a good life," Alice James says. "I had a bad start. I lost my husband at an early age and had a 4-month-old daughter." That was in 1929.

Drawing on her inner strength, Ms. James picked up the pieces of her life. She went back to work as a secretary and a bookkeeper, hiring baby-sitters to care for her infant daughter.

She raised the child the way she'd been brought up, in a way Alice James laments has all but disappeared.

"When I came along, we minded our parents, instead of the children telling the parents what to do."

For a number of years, she took in roomers to help make ends meet. She's been independent ever since.

"I haven't depended on anybody but the Lord," Alice James says. Though she participates in various service activities, the one closest to her heart is Meals-on-Wheels.

"I see people who are not just surviving but living well -- who have a purpose for living," Ms. Shamblen says.

For Ms. Caldroney and some of her friends, the purpose is knitting baby caps that are donated to local hospital nurseries. They've also made hat-and-scarf sets and bags to donate to the International Seamen's Friend House of the Lower Virginia Peninsula.

"RSVP has been a great help in keeping me occupied," says Ms. Caldroney, referring to the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. "I think one of the most important things in life is to be needed."

Another lifestyle habit that helps spell longevity and independence is exercise, even if a person doesn't start until around age 50, says Dr. Nagraj.

Mr. Drucker, a co-founder of Drucker and Falk, a local real estate and insurance agency, credits his exercise regimen with keeping him on his feet, not in a wheelchair. He walks regularly and takes classes on Tuesday and Thursday at the Riverside Wellness & Fitness Center in Newport News. He programs a half-hour ride morning and afternoon on his stationary bicycle at home.

Mr. Drucker prepares all his own meals, enjoys friends and family, and his hobby -- sewing. "I can make anything, even evening dresses," he says, adding that before coming to the Hampton area in 1915, he worked in his father's dress factory in London, England.

Alice James does other things that are just what the doctor ordered. "I eat right -- I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and drink a lot of water," she says.

It's family support that helps seniors remain healthy physically and emotionally, Ms. Shamblen says.

"They include me in everything," says Ms. Kates of her family.

Is it possible to grow older gracefully, even when things aren't always hunky-dory? It's all in how you look at things.

"There are those days that aren't so good," says Ms. Kates. "I forget about those."

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