Living to be 100 and beyond

Secrets to living long and well

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comDecember 3, 2012 

  • J. Wiley Finney Jr.

    For most of his life, J. Wiley Finney Jr. worked as a environmental engineer. Finney, who is 101, worked until he was in his 80s, keeping busy with projects that captured his interest.

    Until just a few years ago, the back yard of his Lexington home was filled with the roses that were his passion for decades. Although he no longer drives, Finney stays active visiting family and friends and being involved at Southern Hills United Methodist Church, where he was a founding member.

    Finney said he thinks his long life might be a family trait.

    "I think it's in the genes," he said. "My dad lived to be 97, and my mother lived to be 89."

    He said he never had to ask for a raise or a new job in his long career, but his life has not been without challenges.

    "I've had everything in the world wrong with me at one time or another," he said. Earlier this year, he underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer. His wife of 60 years, Hazel, died in 1994.

    But he has done a lot of things that experts say contribute to a long life. He found meaning in his work by volunteering through the Kiwanis Club, mentoring children at Harrison Elementary. He gets up every morning and fixes an ample breakfast — bacon and eggs are a staple. He also is passionate about sports.

    During football season, the University of Tennessee class of 1933 alum roots for the orange. But come basketball season he said, "I'm blue all the way."

  • Ethel Gilligan

    For most of her 103 years, Ethel Gilligan has started and ended her day in the same way — with a prayer.

    "I have had a lovely life," said the Lexington woman. "The Lord has been good to me."

    Over the years, Gilligan has been good to herself, too. She has eaten a sensible diet. She never learned to drive, opting to walk everywhere until just a few years ago. She remains physically active, bopping in the shallow end several times a week during water aerobics at the Beaumont Centre Family YMCA with her daughter Pat Burns.

    She grew up in Indianapolis and remembers dancing the Charleston and using her allowance money to go to a movie for 25 cents.

    She worked as a telephone operator before meeting her husband, George. They retired to Lexington in 1976 and were together 61 years. The couple enjoyed ballroom dancing.

    Until a few years ago, she volunteered for years at Country Place nursing home and local hospitals.

    She follows local and national news, and she stayed up late on the night of the presidential election, waiting for the race to be called.

    She admits with a smile that she does have a vice.

    "I eat too many sweets."

You might have noticed that TV weatherman Willard Scott's morning roll call of people celebrating 100-plus years on the planet seems to grow longer and longer.

According to the U.S. Census, the number of American centenarians has roughly doubled in the past 20 years to about 72,000 and is projected to at least double again by 2020. (The same experts, however, also say that that might be a conservative guess.)

Linda J. Van Eldik, director of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky, said several factors have contributed to the longevity.

First, Americans as a whole are living longer. The average life expectancy has gone from 49 at the turn of the 20th century to 78 in 2012.

Also, she said, medical advances have made it possible to routinely cure diseases that once were fatal.

Van Eldik said there appear to be some common traits among those who live the longest. Many of them, she said, "follow a series of good health habits" such as exercising and eating a balanced diet.

She said a positive personality seems to be another common thread.

"They seem to have an increased level of happiness," she said. That doesn't mean that life has not thrown centenarians their share of tough times. But, she said, they seem to have an ability to come back after difficulties with a continued positive outlook.

With the first baby boomers having turned 65 last year, she said, that demographic tidal wave is likely to change a lot about how seniors are seen and treated for the better, although it also will create health challenges.

Sanders-Brown is a major force in research on Alzheimer's. Van Eldik said the percentage of American families dealing with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia will continue to grow, increasing the demand for services for that population.

People who have reached ages 95 to 100 without serious complications of dementia will probably be OK, she said.

And, she said, there is good news for those who are decades away from hitting the 100 mark. It's never too late to start good habits that can contribute to a long, healthy life, or to help the older folks you love make the most of their time.

Obviously, exercise and diet are important. But exercise doesn't need to mean preparing for a marathon, she said. Chair exercises or a walk are simple exercises that most people are able to handle.

It's also important for all of us, especially senior citizens, to stay intellectually engaged, she said. That includes trying new things. Again, she said, it doesn't have to be something on a grand scale. It could be something as simple as trying out a new restaurant, reading a new author or mastering a new technology, such as an iPad.

Another important tool, she said, is staying socially engaged. Play cards or mahjong, go out to lunch, visit with family, volunteer or go shopping with friends.

Put these tips into action, and the Willard Scott of the future might have a special birthday message for you.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog:

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