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Robert David Jaffee

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100 Is the New 70

Posted: 09/12/09 07:43 PM ET

Just hours after the AP reported that the number of Japanese centenarians has doubled in the past six years, Gertrude Baines of Los Angeles, the oldest person in the world at 115, passed away.

Ms. Baines claimed that the secret to her long life was no drinking, no smoking and no fooling around. It is not known whether other women have adhered to that formula, but, according to the AP, women constitute more than 86% of the 40,000 Japanese to hit the century mark.

If 70 is the new 40, then perhaps 100 is the new 70. Even if a modern-day Sarai is unlikely to find an Abram with whom to mate, it appears that the frequency of centenarians has increased since Sherwin B. Nuland wrote in his 1993 book, How We Die, "In developed countries, only one in ten thousand people lives beyond the age of one hundred."

In an annual report, the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry named Sept. 21 as a national holiday to commemorate the elderly.

Coincidentally, on Sept. 21, my grandmother, Gertrude Podrat (Gertrude must have been a grand old name around the turn of the last century), will turn 101. Last year, she became the third member of her family to reach 100, following her late sisters, Bertha and Ann.

She joined a club that has become increasingly populous in recent times, and not only among Japanese.

The Seventh-Day Adventists of Loma Linda, Cal., also have a high concentration of centenarians. Some have cited their religious devotion, but their strict diet, typically vegetarian, and prohibition against alcohol probably have just as much to do with it.

Sardinia too has a high percentage of 100 year olds. That the farmers there grow and eat their own food, drink homemade wine and milk from their own cows, and work the land every day could account for their longevity.

Last year, at her 100th birthday party in Providence, R.I., where she has lived for roughly 75 years, my grandmother showed few signs of slowing down. The party was held at a trendy French restaurant, Rue de L'Espoir, not far from the Brown University campus. A short profile of her may help to illustrate the qualities needed to make it to 100.

Stylish as always, Grandma Gitty sported a pink and black motif -- black trousers and black top to go along with pink, decorative beads and a pink cashmere shawl around her shoulders.

While she was a little hard of hearing and asked me to repeat certain questions, she answered quite decisively when I inquired if she had gotten a letter from President Bush, "No. And I don't want one."

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has been a light eater, good advice perhaps for all of us. At her birthday, she nibbled at lobster crepe and then had a bit of chocolate cake, with the word Petunia, a nod to her love of flowers, scripted on top. She has not been able to indulge that love since she moved to an assisted living facility about five years ago.

Good genes no doubt have played a major role in the longevity of my grandmother and her sisters, but active reading may have something to do with it too.

A few years ago, when my wife and I visited Grandma Gitty, she was reading The New Yorker. That week's cartoon cover featured a number of African women holding books on their heads, instead of jugs of water, as they descended a staircase from an Egyptian-looking palace. The caption was "Arcane Pleasures." Grandma Gitty asked me what the word "arcane" meant.

That was the only indication that her cognitive powers had slightly diminished. But she did know the meaning of the word, and when I told her, she said, "That's right."

Amusingly, at her 100th birthday party, she told me that she no longer reads The New Yorker. "I'm tired of it," she said.

Irrespective of her reading preferences, my grandmother still conjures up the arcane air of an Egyptian queen. Over the years, she has reminded me of Cleopatra, not least for the strength of character it has taken to endure more than 30 years without my grandfather, Bernard Podrat, who owned a textile business in Providence and passed away in 1976.

Besides that strength, Grandma Gitty also has a coquettishness about her like that of Cleopatra. I suspect that most centenarians share such a zest for life.

In the early 1980s, my mother, Ina, set up my grandmother with Dan Lipton, a New Yorker. They dated for several years, and I remember Grandma Gitty smiling as he squeezed her and called her sweetheart. He wanted to marry her, but she declined. I heard different reasons for her refusal: he wasn't tall enough, he hadn't gone to college, he was after her money. I didn't believe any of them. When my grandmother uttered those statements, she was just being a character and possibly still thinking of my grandfather.

In the summer of 1986, I bumped into Mr. Lipton in Washington Square Park. He was seated on a green, slatted bench and wearing a beret. I mentioned my grandmother, and he spoke glowingly of her.

Shortly thereafter, I asked her about him. True to her cantankerous spirit, she said, "Oh, I thought he was dead." Then, like Cleopatra, interrogating her messenger, she added, "How did he look?" Clearly, she was still interested in him.

Since then, she may have had other beaus, though I have not heard of any. In fact, at her 100th birthday, she told me that when it comes to attracting men, "I've lost the knack, kid."

Last year, as Grandma's birthday party concluded, she did not want to sit on a bench outside the restaurant; instead, she stood sturdily as she awaited my parents' SUV. I helped her into the backseat, and my mother, her oldest daughter, fastened the safety belt. Then I kissed Grandma Gitty on the forehead and said, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."

Providence's own Cleopatra giggled and smiled, still a coquette at 100.