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[Lee Kyong-hee] Tips for a long life from supercentenarians

Hester Ford passed away peacefully at her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, April 17. She was recognized as the oldest living American before she died, though there is a disagreement about her age, 115 or 114.

Her obituary said Ford was born in August 1905 (her family claims she was born in 1904) in Lancaster County, South Carolina, to Peter and Frances McCardell. That was the year Theodore Roosevelt began his first full term as US president; the Russo-Japanese war ended with Japan’s unexpected victory, cementing its hegemony over Asia; and the Wright brothers’ airplane stayed in the air more than half an hour for the first time.

Ford grew up working on a farm. She planted and picked cotton, plowed the field and cut wood. She married John Ford in 1921, at age 15. The next year she had the first of their 12 children, of whom four remain alive. They moved to Charlotte in 1953, after a family member was brutally killed. Ford’s husband died at the age of 57 in 1963. She never remarried and worked as a nanny for more than 20 years.

Ford reportedly had as many as 68 grandchildren, 120 great-grandchildren and 126 great-great-grandchildren, though sources vary as to the precise numbers. She suffered from dementia, but was still able to recite Psalm 23 on her 112th birthday. She was a devout Christian and spent many years volunteering at her local church.

At the time of her death, the supercentenarian was the sixth-oldest living person in the world, as validated by the Gerontology Research Group. When asked for the secret to her longevity in a press interview, she responded, “I just live right, all I know.”

“She was a pillar and stalwart to our family and provided much needed love, support and understanding to us all,” said Tanisha Patterson-Powe, her great-granddaughter. “She was the seed that sprouted leaves and branches which is now our family. God saw fit to make her the matriarch of our family and blessed us to be her caretaker and recipient of her legacy.”

Reading media reports on Ford’s passing, I found some intriguing parallels between her life and that of my mother, though they lived through different events and sociocultural environments on different continents. My mother, Kim Yu-jung, passed away in September 2019, some six months into the 12th decade of her life.

She was born in March 1909. That was the year before the end of the Joseon era and before Japan’s colonization of Korea. She lost both her parents as a child: Her father went abroad to participate in the Korean independence movement, when she was 4 years old; and her mother passed away in a household accident when she was 10. She married my father at age 15 and had eight children, of whom she lost four while she was alive. My father died in 1965, at age 56.

My mother counted “three big wars” in her life. The first, she said, was the March 1 Independence Movement, the second was World War II, and the third the Korean War. Each caused her tragic losses, the third carrying one of her daughters away. My third-eldest sister went missing during the Korean War and for years thereafter, before dawn every morning my mother went out to the courtyard and prayed there for her safety -- rain or shine, hot or cold.

My sister ended up in North Korea, it was learned decades later. In September 2009, my mother met my sister in an inter-Korean family reunion at Kumgangsan across the border. They spent several hours together, catching up on six decades of separation. That was all. There was no further contact or any information about my sister afterward.

My mother never openly grieved or complained. All her life it appeared to be her unwavering credo: She never expressed her emotions impulsively, joy or sorrow, but calmly persevered. She obviously internalized Confucian teachings. Indeed, she performed all ancestral rites with religious devotion up to a year before her death.

What came next was a lifelong effort to maintain peace and harmony in the family, quietly giving support to everyone in need and removing seeds of conflict wherever found.

Considering this, I would say, living with and through difficulties may not necessarily affect one’s lifespan. In their 2011 book “The Longevity Project,” psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin discuss the findings of an eight-decade study on how stress and worry affect longevity. The study, begun by psychologist Lewis Terman in California in 1921, had 1,528 participants.

“It was not those who took life easy, played it safe, avoided stress that lived the longest,” the authors explain. “Instead, those who live longer had an often-complex pattern of persistence, prudence, conscientiousness, hard work, and close involvement with friends and communities. Because of their perseverance, they found the way back to these healthy paths each time they were pushed off the road.”

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997) of France, the oldest person ever recorded according to Guinness World Records, also had her share of tragedy.

As the wife of a well-to-do shop owner in Arles, Calment never had to work, but her life wasn’t without hardships. Her husband died in 1942 after consuming a spoiled dessert. Their daughter, Yvonnne, had one son, Frederic Billot, whom Calment raised after Yvonne died of pneumonia at age 36. In 1960, Frederic died, also at age 36, without children in an automobile accident.

When Calment died at age 122, her secret to staying young as reported in her obituary was a stunningly unconventional list of diet and lifestyle habits. They included drinking port wine, eating 900 grams of chocolate per week, treating her skin with olive oil, taking up fencing at 85, riding her bike until she was 100 and smoking until she was 117.

It seems that one’s mind and attitude toward life matter more than eating habits and lifestyle in staying young and healthy.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.