Living to 116

  • Share
  • Read Later
I didn't know Elizabeth Bolden, who died quietly on Monday in a Memphis nursing home. But I bet she had some stories. If you figure that every week brings something to remember, she'd have had more than 6,000 tales to tell by the time she passed away at the age of 116, the oldest person on earth. She had lived in three different centuries, a witness to the fortunes and follies of five generations. She got to see Halley's comet pass by — twice.

Lizzie was born in rural Tennessee, the daughter of sharecroppers, in the summer of 1890. That means she was as old as Idaho and Wyoming; they became states that same summer. Benjamin Harrison was President. It was an auspicious year for births: she arrived in the company of Agatha Christie, and Groucho Marx, and Dwight Eisenhower. Pork chops cost 10 cents a pound, bread was a nickel a loaf, milk 6 cents a quart. The next year, basketball was invented.

Her life expectancy at birth, as an African American girl, was less than 40. But she lived in the age of invention, of penicillin, vaccines, x-rays, cat scans, lived in the century when life expectancy doubled. She was hardly ever sick, her grandchildren said, until a stroke two years ago left her unable to tell her stories anymore.

She married her husband Lewis in 1908; they were cotton farmers most of their lives until he died in the 1950s. Her grandson said her life centered on her family; she was a dutiful Christian, a hard worker who lived by the Golden Rule. "She gave good advice," said James Bolden, "and the family listened."

That family could populate a decent-sized town. She had seven children, 40 grandchildren, 75 great-grandchildren, 150 great-great-grandchildren, 220 great-great-great-grandchildren and 75 great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Imagine trying to remember the birthdays. Picture Thanksgiving dinner....

There have only been about 800 documented "supercentenarians" in history, those who lived past 110. Life expectancy shot up in the last century, but mainly because fewer babies died, not because we've found the cure for aging. If rates of obesity keep rising, some experts think we'll soon be dying younger. But if you believe the apostles of what is modestly called "the immortalist movement," it's easy to imagine that our children and grandchildren will routinely live well into a second century — living well being the next great challenge. The Methuselah Foundation has established a $4 million prize for the scientist who develops the longest-living mouse as the first step in clock-stopping. "When aging in mice is shown to be 'treatable,'" the prize announcement states, "the funding necessary for a full-line assault on the aging process will be made available."

Leave aside the immense challenge to policymakers and politicians of balancing the needs of old and young, of old and older. The experts this week release their report about educating children for the 21st century; but today's children may live into the 22nd. What would they need to know, what skills, what habits, what sense of adventure, if a lifetime lasts so much longer than our lifetimes ever have before? Will they go to school not just as children but again and again through their lives, because no body of knowledge will last 125 years?

"Mamma Lizzie" was a farmer who lived her whole life in Tennessee. But the typical American worker right now changes jobs about every four years, and moves more often than people in any other industrialized country — more than 40 million of us pick up and move on every year. So how many jobs will we hold, how many places will we live, how many friends will we make and lose, or never lose because the Facebook generation will follow one another through all their travels and troubles and triumphs? Lizzie was married for half a century; but she was widowed for half a century as well. What will become of the notion of soulmate for life, when life leaves room for two, three, four marriages, each lasting for decades?

When 50 becomes the new 20, and 90 the typical retirement age, will we be collectively wiser, not repeat our mistakes? Will movies be better because 18-to-30-year-old males will matter less? Will all our driving habits, love lives, sense of humor, our art and soul, be changed because the fear of death is defused, our sense of mortality vague and distant? Will be it harder to treat each day as a gift if we think we'll get so many of them?

I'm guessing, but I expect that Lizzie Bolden's family was able to let go, because she lived a great, long life, she finished her race, and for the last couple of years had mainly slept. When I sat with my father as he lay dying at 83, I was struck by how lucky he was, how lucky we all were, that he too had lived a good life and seemed entirely at peace. He had been watching his granddaughter play soccer in the sunshine just two weeks before, and then came home, and his family gathered, he fell asleep and two days later, on a late April afternoon, with everyone he loved nearby, he died.

Let the scientists study all they want how to reset the dials, expand the horizon. But the length won't change the final mystery of the journey, or the knowledge that for all of us, the time may come when we have finished the course, and are ready. Rest in peace, Lizzie.