A Century’s End

Emma Morano (pictured above) of Verbania, Italy, died today at the age of 117, according to reports. She was the oldest person alive on the planet and she was also the last human being who was here the century before last. When we woke this morning, the 19th Century was still a part of living history; now it is entirely history.

Ms. Morano was born on November 29, 1899, and every human being alive was born after the dawn of the 20th Century or this present century.

In the United States, the last living connection with 19th Century was severed last May with the death of Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York, who was born on July 6, 1899. She held the title of oldest person in the world from June 2015 until this May.

The newest oldest person in the world is a Jamaican woman named Violet Brown, who is also 117, but she was born in March 1900; she is the oldest person alive today who was born in the 20th Century.

That said, Miss Brown could yet outlive me. I started cleaning the back porch two days ago, and I am still out of breath. I’m 48 going on a not very robust 91. Further, although each of the above-named women is on the top 20 list of longest lived people of all time, they each have several years to catch up to Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. No one with the paperwork to prove it has lived longer than Jeanne Calment did. Ms. Brown has five years to catch up with Ms. Calment.

It is reported that Ms. Morano “ate two raw eggs a day, ever since a doctor advised her that it would be good for her health when she was diagnosed with anemia at the age of 20,” and that she has done so every day for almost a century. One wonders in what year that good doctor passed.

Someone born today will be here 100 years from now. In the most recent U.S. Census, about seventeen individuals out of every 100,000 people were 100 years old or older. In raw numbers, that means there are 50,000-plus centenarians in the U.S. right now, at this moment.

(Who is the oldest person you ever met when you were young? How far back do your connections reach? When I was about 10, in 1978, my sister and I met a woman who was about 100, so to the best of my memory, one day my younger self shook hands with the 1870s.)

Are there more centenarians now than in the past? That question is not one that can be answered, but for most of the last century the number of governments that were not keeping bureaucratic records about facts concerning the country’s population has dwindled to almost zero, and the number of countries committed to falsifying bureaucratic records has also dwindled to a very few.

Thus the true number of centenarians and supercentenarians (this is the catchy term for those who live to be 110 years old and older, and as of today, April 15, 2017, there are 150 or so supercentenarians among us) alive right now is knowable, is verifiable, at this present moment, better than at any time in history.

Some Americans of a certain age may remember television ads for a brand of yogurt, of all things, that featured Soviet citizens about whom it was claimed many were a century old or older because they ate yogurt every day. Well, no. They were not that old whether or not they ate yogurt, and they almost certainly did not eat an American brand of tasty, sugary gloop. Not a one of them was even 100 years of age. Thus, a capitalist yogurt company with a need to claim things and a communist government with a fake bureaucracy that had a need to claim things found for themselves a mutually happy not-exactly-true lie to use to sell to those to whom they each wanted to sell things: yogurt that fosters longevity in one case, and the concept that one particular type of government breeds longevity in its population in the other.

There may not be more people 100 years old and older right now than in decades past, but there are more that have been counted and verified as truly 100 years old and older. This will continue, and perhaps we will see more centenarians per 100,000 people or perhaps we will learn that 17 per 100,000 (our current reality) is an anomaly, a remarkable number and a remarkably large number; perhaps when I turn 100 on November 18, 2068, I will be alone, one out of 100,000, the oldest human anyone knows.

In 2012, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) officially disagreed with me about my future as the only centenarian. I will not be alone when I turn 100, it reported, and further, the number of super-elderly people (110 years and older) will increase dramatically in the next century.

To be fair, the ONS did not name me by name in its report. I can not imagine why it did not. The report carries the explosive and yet somehow dull title, “One third of babies born in 2013 are expected to live to 100,” and in it the ONS said that based on its estimates, well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? Expectations. This is one prediction that only time can reveal.

Even if the numbers remain roughly 15–20 persons out of every 100,000, that means that it is likely that someone born today will be here on November 29, 2116. Someone born this year might live to 116 or even 122 years of age or even beyond that. If the per capita number of centenarians will increase to 33%, which is one-third of the population the last time I checked, well, wow.

Each of these future centenarians born today will be something of a walking museum of life as it is lived now and will be lived in years to come:

Life in 2017: ah, the memories. His or her first portrait with parents: taken with a phone held on a selfie-stick and posted within seconds on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. Several dozen hearts are clicked on Instagram within seconds, several dozen thumbs-ups are awarded on Facebook, and several dozen diaper companies start trollowing the family’s account on Twitter. (I credit myself with that term, “trollowing.” For troll Twitter accounts. Perhaps the word “trollowing” will be my one legacy as a writer.)

Not ten years ago, not one clause of the sentences I wrote in the previous paragraph would have made sense or meant anything (a photo with a phone on a stick?); ten years from now, these descriptions may not mean anything once again. (Except “trollowing.” That’s gonna stick around.) Five and ten years from now, as far as social media and technology are concerned, there will be descriptions of how a happy family celebrates moments that will have phrases that might sound funny right now but will not sound odd then. The universal truth is that today’s birth will be celebrated.

I am 48, but because of the demographics of my family—both of my parents were older than 25 when I was born and both of them were born to parents already in their 30s, who were each among the later children in their own families and also born to parents in their 30s, too—my great-grandparents were all born in the 1860s and 1870s, and none were alive when I popped on the scene. One hundred years ago is not far away for a slow-to-develop family like this. (And if I ever become anyone’s father, and here I am pushing 50, that future kid may bring the 19th Century, the 1870s, into the 22nd.)

Technology changes, and terminology changes with it, and the global nature of communication technologies can make the permanence of each change or each new thing seem ever more absolute and complete and yet ever more temporary and brief, but life will remain just as easy and just as difficult over the next century. Twenty years from now, I will hear my as-yet imaginary child notice that time seems to be moving quicker than in the past, just as I said to my parents 20 years ago.

Our selfie-stick (something I have not yet purchased as of today) will be sitting in a closet somewhere, having been abandoned years before (in 2021) for something newer and cooler and thus more “useful.” And Emma Morano and the 19th Century might still be with us, eating her two raw eggs a day.

* * * *
This is an update of a piece from last summer.

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One comment

  1. Martha Kennedy · April 15, 2017

    My grandfather was born in 1870, the same year in which my great-grandmother on the other side of the family, was born. He was in his 50s when my mom entered the scene in 1920. One of her older sisters lived a few months past 100. I don’t want to do that. I was 80 in 2005 and it was no fun. Even now, I’m older than many of my 65 year old friends both in appearance abilities. These are the results of pain and less mobility. I don’t like knowing what I know (and you know) about the aging process, but there it is. If I live into my 80s, I guess I’ll have the benefit of experience. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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