Testing the limits of longevity

  • Family
  • Friday, 06 Feb 2015

Supercentenarian: Ruth Adler poses for a portrait in her North Side home near Chicago, Illinois. She turned 110 on Jan 11.

A supercentenarian shares insight on the ageing experience.

Ruth Adler reads three newspapers a day, lives in a comfy lake-front condo and has just achieved elite status beyond most people’s imagining, let alone reach.

On Jan 11, as confirmed by her Cook County birth certificate, she turned 110 years old.

Turn it around in your mind. A century plus a decade. When she talks about her brother’s death in the war, she is talking about World War I.

It is remarkable enough when someone turns 100, much less anything older. My own mother will turn 101 in a few weeks, to my fascination and amazement.

But at 110, Adler joins the tiny demographic slice dubbed supercentenarians. There were only 77 people validated as having reached the age of 110 living in the world as of September, according to the Gerontology Research Group.

The organisation estimates an actual total number of 300 to 450 people worldwide.

She who soon could be 78th on the validated list, sat in her Chicago North Side apartment the other day with Jody Weinberg, a relative who is her close and beloved companion, and chatted amiably.

Although she needs a walker to get around and is hard of hearing, and has full-time help, she is in fairly good health. Her memory isn’t perfect, but whose is? Before I met her the other day, I failed to remember that I had actually met her in 2003, when I wrote a story about a synagogue knitting group that donated their work to people in need.

It wasn’t until she mentioned that she had been a long-time member of the knitting group at nearby Emanuel Congregation that light began to dawn.

So, big deal about the memory.

And Adler’s is actually pretty good, though to my relief she didn’t remember having met me before either.

She told of growing up on the South Side, where her father owned a hardware store that made deliveries with the help of a horse that lived in a barn behind their house. She was the youngest of five children in a family that was comfortably middle-class and remained so even after her father died in his late 50s.

“My mother learned how to handle money,” she said. “And I learned how, too.”

After her family moved to the North Side, she met and married Sidney Adler. He worked in advertising, and they had a rich life filled with travel and friends from the synagogue.

But she grew bored. When she was 50 she got a job with Arbitron telephoning people and asking what they were watching on TV. Then she started a market research firm of her own, in her den.

She hired women, most of whom had few other opportunities to work, to interview people about new products. Some of the women were in rough financial straits, Weinberg said. “She wouldn’t say this about herself, but she took care of them,” she said. “They became family.”

But Adler was also a straight-talking businesswoman, Weinberg said. When Adler described her style as easy-going and averse to disagreement, Weinberg affectionately rolled her eyes.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “People were afraid of her. Me especially.”

Adler took in a friend, Betty Weiner, as a partner, and they ran Adler Weiner Research for decades. Adler retired when she was 89, but the firm is still run by Weiner’s family and now has offices in Chicago, Lincolnwood, Los Angeles and Orange County, California.

After her husband died when she was in her early 80s, Adler remained active in her knitting group. She kept up her many close friendships and her bonds with relatives.

And the years continued adding up. She has no idea how she has lived this long.

“Don’t ask what her secret is,” implored S. Jay Olshansky, professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on longevity.

Centenarians and supercentenarians have no secrets to reveal, he said.

“They won the genetic lottery at birth,” Olshansky said.

“We think people who live this long are ageing more slowly,” he said. “For them, one year of clock time is not matched by one year biological time. One year from now, these centenarians may only be nine months older biologically.”

Supercentenarians are actually a fairly healthy demographic, said Dr William Dale, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at University of Chicago Medicine, who a few years ago had a patient who died at 112.

They didn’t suffer heart attacks, strokes or cancer. They didn’t get into deadly accidents or suffer life-threatening infections like pneumonia or influenza.

“It’s avoiding everything else that happens to people as they get older that lets you get to 110,” Dale said.

Being 110 may be healthy, but is it happy?

Adler gives her own state mixed reviews.

“It’s hard to evaluate,” she said. “You’re not your own person. You can’t do what you want to do.”

And sometimes, Adler said, “I can’t make up my own mind.”

She fixed me with a strong look.

“Understand?” she said. “Am I making myself clear?”

She was.

But she was also enjoying the conversation, expressing her happiness at the friends and family members who keep visiting and looking forward to her upcoming party (which came off without a hitch). Weinberg, whose mother was a first cousin of Sidney Adler’s, was expecting more than 60 people at the open house.

“My doctor and his wife are coming,” Adler said. She could ask him why he thinks she has lived to 110, but she might get the same answer she got once before.

“He said, ‘I don’t think that the guy upstairs wants you,’ ” she said. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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