May 7, 2011

IRELAND: Cheers, I'm 101 years old!

DUBLIN / / Lifestyle / May 7, 2011

Why many more of us will be joining Eileen and living past 100

By Kim Bielenberg

As he celebrated his 105th birthday last year, Michael "Mick" Fitzsimons was in jovial mood in his local pub in Stradone, Co Cavan. He said the secret to his longevity was hard work, eating porridge, riding his bicycle until the age of 100 and not taking any holidays.

He had in fact gone for a spin on the bike until his son Michael Junior took the wind out of his tyres. He drank a glass of brandy every night.

This week Michael died not long after his 106th birthday. He was reputed to be Ireland's oldest man

In 2010 177 people passed their 100th birthday in Ireland, and each received the "centenarian bounty" of €2,540 from the President. Until recently clocking up a century of years was something of an oddity, but centenarians are now the fastest-growing age group in the world.

With life expectancy increasing every year, the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland predicts that the number of Irish centenarians will shoot up to 8,500 in the next 30 years.

Professor Desmond O'Neill, one of the country's leading age researchers says: "There has been a steady growth in the number of centenarians. The good news is that disabilities among those over 80 are dropping.

"There is a number of reasons why we will enjoy greater longevity. We have better education, sanitation, and nutrition."

Our rise in life expectancy has been steady since independence. In 1926 the life expectancy for both men and women was just 57, but since then it has grown to 77 for men and 82 for women.

Age researchers predict that population of people over 85 will rise from 74,000 to 356,000 by 2041.

The popular image of the centenarian may be one of a person who is physically infirm, hard of hearing and unable to go out. But a growing number of centenarians are still reasonably fit and healthy, according to Professor Des O'Neill.

On Tuesday this week 101-year-old Eileen Veale from Churchtown, Dublin, was out walking on the seafront at Dun Laoghaire. Asked for the secret of her long life she joked: "I haven't started to live at all."

Eileen is one of the only known widows of a veteran of the War of Independence. Her husband, who died six decades ago, was given a medal for his service for the old IRA before the birth of the Free State. She herself remembers the funeral procession of Michael Collins.

She recently gave up smoking, but is still partial to the occasional glass of wine or Bailey's Irish cream.

Her daughter Gay believes that Eileen's lengthy widowhood may have played a part in her reaching a ripe old age. "She has had complete freedom and nobody was going to tell her what to do.

"Her diet may also have played a part in it. She always ate yoghurt and wheatgerm, and she insisted that vegetables were fresh and not out of a tin."

Professor Desmond O'Neill says improved diets have played a role in our greater longevity. "People are eating more fresh food and they have reduced their salt intake."

The survival of a growing number of pensioners for nearly four decades beyond conventional retirement age is bound to put pressure on the exchequer. With up to one-quarter of citizens expected to be over 75 by 2041, the Government may have to keep pushing back the retirement age -- or even make it optional in more workplaces.

"If people are fit beyond their seventies and eighties it makes sense to allow them to continue working," says Professor Desmond O'Neill. "Many of the negative popular assumptions about older workers do not hold true. However, if we extend the retirement age we must ensure that older workers receive training in skills such as new technology."

In a new book Amortality, the writer Catherine Mayer has pointed to a new trend towards the over-70s acting as if they will never grow old. The Pope (84) and the Queen of England (85) showed in recent days that they had little difficulties performing their duties. The queen will hardly be exceptional if she is still reigning past her 100th birthday in 15 years time.

According to Catherine Mayer, the never-say-die attitude is best summed up by Woody Allen, who never rests and continues to turn out a film a year at the age of 76.

"When you're worried about this joke, and this costume, and this wig, and that location, and the dailies," he told an interviewer, "you're not worried about death and the brevity of life."

Groucho Marx had his own spin on ageing: "You're only as old as the woman you feel."

Some research shows that people who survived great stresses when they were young -- such as holocaust survivors -- may enjoy greater longevity.

"Centenarians are a curious group," says Professor Desmond O'Neill. "They are tough and resilient. You could say it is the meek and the weak who die young."

Not all the effects of an active elderly population are positive, of course. As much as other groups, criminals are putting off retirement and failing to hang up their balaclavas: the over-65s are the fastest growing group in British prisons.

While those aged over 100 are likely to become commonplace in the coming decades we are also likely to see the emergence of super-centenarians -- classed as those aged 110 and over. There are believed to be around 300 super-centenarians in the world, but numbers are set to grow.

As longevity increases, more people are likely to surpass the age of French woman Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122. She was the oldest person in history whose age has been verified by official documents.

Like Mick Fitzsimmons she rode a bicycle until she was 100, but unlike the Cavan man she never worked. She ate two pounds of chocolate a week and treated her skin with olive oil. She is said to have walked all around the town of Arles to thank those who congratulated her on her 100th birthday.

On one of her birthdays when she was well into her 12th decade, a visitor is said to have bade her farewell by saying: "Until next year perhaps." Quick as a flash, the birthday girl responded: "I don't see why not. You don't look so bad to me."

- Kim Bielenberg