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Celebrating People Over 100

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Years ago I attended an event sponsored by Claude Pepper, who was then a Congressman advocating for the elderly. In the VIP room before the event, he invited me to meet a group of people who were all over 100 years old.

They were all people of extraordinary achievement, some quite famous, their minds agile, their talk articulate and perceptive. I was half their age and circulated among them eager to hear their take on what it meant to reach the century mark.

One of them, a world-renowned conductor, told me that the main problem he encountered through the late aging process was that people took him for granted, meaning less seriously. He explained that younger people judged him, despite the wisdom he had acquired in a long life, as being out of date and, therefore, less perceptive.

He had discovered that his views had reached a level of toleration; listened to but dismissed as somehow irrelevant. Yes, people were respectful and did not interrupt when he expressed himself in terms contrary to the prevailing opinion of the moment, but his views were lost in an echo chamber of what he perceived as polite indifference.

When we parted he told me -- and I remember this distinctly -- "There is a point in a long life, young man, when you see the truth of things with absolute clarity. You can easily spot hypocrisy, cant, pretense, guile and foolishness in seconds, but if you point it out you risk the secret ridicule of youthful indulgence."

Many younger people, he told me, thought him a bit of a curmudgeon and he sensed that there were times when his views were met with a polite snicker. What I discovered, too, was that many of those I talked to in that room had a similar view.

Although he and the others were articulate and clearly mentally competent, I had to confess to myself that I entertained the same prejudice. I took them for granted.

As I age, I am beginning to glimpse the truth of his remark and I am finding that "truth" has its own intrinsic rewards. By "truth," I mean wisdom and acquiring wisdom is like stumbling across a secret treasure.

I was reminded of that discovery recently when I attended the hundredth birthday of my friend Dr. Clarence Agress, a legendary cardiologist now living in Santa Barbara. Clarence's beautiful wife Joan gave him a smashing birthday party for more than 100 guests, a generational love fest that brought people from all over the country.

Clarence is a phenomenon. He paints, writes novels, attends concerts, does Pilates and has seen a century 0f wars, depressions, new technologies, medical advances and the rise in the world population from 1.6 billion to more than 7 billion.

In a moving speech to the assembled guests, he acknowledged that he could indeed attribute his age to his inherited gene pool, but, as a medical man, he also pointed out that that was not quite enough to assure a long and fruitful life. He pointed out that he attributed his longevity to spending his life doing things that passionately interested him. He found a purpose in living the creative life, a life of curiosity and exploration, which enriched his inner world and gave him the will and the joy to carry on.

When he offered his observations on what he has learned in his long life, including what he eats for breakfast, I listened carefully, largely because I believe in his recipe for longevity and the fidelity of his observations.

I may sound like a bit of a Pollyanna looking for the good in every situation, but faced with the aging process, in which the body inevitably breaks down, one can take comfort in the example of those whose clarity of mind can survive with agility for a century. These men and women have discovered the secret wisdom that only long experience and careful observation can provide.

Permit me to opine a variation of what Ronald Reagan once joked about -- not trusting people under the age of 70. After my experience with these centurions and contemplating the state of the world at this moment, I would amend that comment to not trusting people under 100.

Download a free copy of Warren Adler's Trans-Siberian Express.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections. His books are published in 25 languages worldwide and several have been adapted to movies, including "The War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts."