Meet my grandfather, Barney, who celebrated his 92nd birthday this month. Barney's was my first stop a few days ago on my way south to St Petersburg, FL where I reside for the winter. "I've changed," he tells me. I can't help but agree with him. He is noticeably more upbeat; jovial even.
"Gal dang, you're growing," he tells me upon first sight, his eyes shifting up to catch a glimpse of my reaction from his hunched stance, a sly smirk across his face. At 35 years of ripe age, I believe I am officially done growing. "I've lost 5 inches!" he states in something between disbelief and pride. He is shrinking. The tall, rugged, strong man I remember from my youth has succumb, as we all do over time, to gravity, his upper spine more curved each time I see him, shaping him into a perpetual state of bent over. He's not in perfect health: ribs are cracking, balance shifting, sleep evading. But he's a bull, and bulls don't give up.
"Age before beauty," he tells me, gesturing for me to get off the elevator first. It didn't make sense to me, he's almost 60 years my senior. Was he being funny? I wondered. Or did he just mess it up? He says it this way several more times on our way to dinner; every time we cross a threshold in fact. He is being funny. I'm left chuckling to myself. At dinner, he says hello to several tables of people. They all call him by name as he proudly introduces me as his granddaughter. "One of nine," he says with pride. "And I got 6 other little ones, too," referring to his great grandchildren. They all know one another. Some of the folks he knows from Bingo, which he attends two times a week and has amassed $2500 in earnings this year he tells me (netting $500 after buy-ins, to which he explains feels like a pretty good deal for some weekly entertainment). Some folks he knows from church (attending the same place of worship for almost 50 years), and some simply because this is their favorite stomping ground.
"The world needs more laughter," Barney tells me once we are back from dinner. I'm sitting on his living room floor in the small one bedroom apartment he's downgraded to after selling the family home, the house we spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases in, playing countless hours of ping pong with earlier mentioned cousins and siblings. He is in his recliner where he sleeps all nights now, both of us sipping on short pours of Sauvignon Blanc. I agree with him wholeheartedly. "I like to make people laugh," he claims. And he does. And I am sure he tells the same jokes and the same stories over and over. Like the story he tells me, every time I see him without fail about the time we consumed an entire large pizza together. When I was six. I had impressed him with my healthy appetite, and each time he recounts this story to me, I feel the love and pride not always easily expressed of a grandfather for his granddaughter.
He took me out to my grandmother's favorite restaurant, Red Lobster, when I visited him three years ago. He lifted the water glass to his lips, took a sip, and slammed it back down on the table, water splashing out the top. "Gal dang, that's heavy!" he exclaimed. I held my belly laughing, knowing it was less likely that the glass was too heavy for him and more likely that his shoulder had unexpectedly given out. A similar thing occurred on this recent visit over dinner, this time the plastic cup slamming down on the table top and Barney exclaiming, "Gal dang, that's heavy!" he looked over to catch me smiling. He now knows his shoulder is "no good" at a certain angle, but that doesn't stop him from an opportunity to make someone laugh.
Three years ago, Barney's was also the first stop on my initial move to Florida. The year before, my grandmother, Pete, Barney's wife of over 60 years, moved on after a rapid decline from Alzheimer's, another story for another time. Three years ago my grandfather was still living in the home he and Pete had built in Ellenville, NY in 1965. She had moved on, and he remained. His health suffered during her decline and continued after her passing. He fell and broke a hip which he had replaced. He had both knees replaced. He got sick a lot. He was isolated, sad, irritable and lonely. He was surprisingly happiest during his stays at the hospital where he had young nurses to tell his jokes to.
My grandfather lost his father when he was 13 years old. He was fostered to another family after his mother could no longer afford to run their farm. During World War II, Barney learned to fly and was a navigator in Navy Air Force planes called Privateers. His affinity for flight and piloting resulted in steady ownership of airplanes up until he retired. Before and after the war, he was a trucker driver, a bus driver, an air traffic controller and a carpenter. He met and married my grandmother when he was 26 years old in 1952. Her family owned a lumberyard. He worked for them as a yard foreman beginning in 1961 and eventually became the president of the lumberyard, and my grandmother his vice president. They went to church every Sunday and were active members in the church community. They raised four children. They played golf with friends weekly as they got older and became members of the country club. They had friends and business. Community and purpose. But after my grandmother moved on, and Barney's health declined, he had a hard time getting to church. And he had to give up playing his beloved golf altogether because his body couldn't keep up anymore. He lived alone and his sense of community dwindled. His four children encouraged him to sell the house and move into an apartment complex. With much resistance, he finally acquiesced when he realized it was truly his best option for moving forward. For the past two years, Healthy Way has been his place of residence. He knows many of his neighbors. We'll call her Sue, a 55 year old woman with an unsolvable hip issue, greets him every morning by bringing him the newspaper. In return, he chauffeurs her to various doctors appointments. Sue also loves to cook and makes big meals like chicken and dumplings or turkey and stuffing, and shares plates of food with her neighbors, my grandfather one of the first to receive. Barney tells me about all of this the night I arrive, and by morning I have seen it first hand. Sue calls me over in the parking lot as I repack my bags to go. She holds my hand, tells me she will look after my grandfather for me and that he's an angel. She has tears in her eyes. She's had a tough run of loss and pain in the past couple of years, but he keeps her laughing.
After leaving my grandfather's, somewhere between my 6th and 8th hour of Interstate 81 dodging semis in my Honda Fit, I stumble on a TedTalk from their Health category on longevity. In it, Susan Pinker discusses the residents of Sardinia, an Italian island, a blue zone, that has one of the highest per capita centenarian populations in the world, and hypothesizes this phenomenon. She suggests, through her own research as well as from a study conducted by a Brigham Young University researcher that followed over 10,000 individuals from middle age to death, that the two leading indicators for a long life, over other factors such as exercise, substance use, weight and so on, are related to our social connections. This includes both intimate, close relationships (good friends, family, etc) as well as casual relationships, the people we may not know very well but we see frequently. Our social integration of both weak and strong bonds has the ability to lower stress levels, keeping us alive longer, according to this study. My grandfather plans to live to be about 110 years old, because of an estimate a doctor once gave him. If the changes I have witnessed in him over the past three years have been any indication, he is well on his way to centenarian status. From my perspective, it is the presence and increase of friends, neighbors and community that attribute to not only his longevity and desire to keep living, but perhaps more importantly, to his quality of life.
The moral of this story? I'll quote a song I learned when I was six years old during my days as a "Brownie" (a junior Girl Scout) to help me with that:
"Make new friends, and keep the old. One is silver and the other's gold."
To listen to the full TedTalk, visit: