Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Near-Centenarian Roberta McCain in Perfect Health

It is a gorgeous spring day in Washington, and I am sitting in a suite at the Hay-Adams Hotel chatting with Roberta McCain while she is having her nails done for Vogue's photo shoot. So far she's been amenable to—and completely delighted with—everything we've suggested: the nails, a change of clothes, a light hair-and-makeup session. "If I leave here and my glass slippers fall off, I won't know what to do," she says, laughing. Next up is a pose in stocking feet on a narrow five-story balcony, which is making everyone but her slightly nervous. "Just call me Barkis," she says, referring to the character in David Copperfield. "I'm willing."

At 96, Roberta (as she insists everyone call her) is not just willing but almost startlingly able and a good example of the resilient genes that her son has been eager to showcase by taking her out on the campaign trail. The daughter of a successful wildcatter, the widow of a highly decorated naval admiral, and now the mother of the Republican nominee for the presidency, she spent her married life in posts ranging from London to Honolulu and has traveled—relentlessly—to pretty much every point in between. At 88, when she was told she was too old to rent a car in Europe, she simply bought one and drove it from Munich to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with her twin sister and most constant traveling companion, Rowena. ("I wanted to see Samarkand," she explains, and with that accomplished she continued on to Greece, India, and New Zealand, leaving the car behind in Europe for future jaunts.) Last Christmas she had lunch in Paris at Maxim's and spent New Year's Eve at the Lido before taking off for England and Scotland. A woman of no light convictions, she was rumored, during her son's 2000 presidential bid, to have flown the Taiwanese flag out the window of her apartment in Washington near the Chinese Embassy on the anniversary of the Communist Party's victory in the Chinese Civil War. While her son said, "I would truly not be surprised," his mother wasn't giving anything away. "I'm not saying whether I did or I didn't," she told a reporter. "The less said, the sooner mended. Have you heard that one?"

Despite such uncharacteristic hedging, The Washington Post, in a play on the bus that has become her son's campaign signature, dubbed her "The Even Straighter Talk Express," and it is an apt description. Thoroughly engaging, she is the proverbial open book, albeit a rollicking one that is equal parts history, travelogue, and Who's Who of the twentieth century. In the time it takes for two coats of pale-pink nail polish to dry, the conversation loops from: mutual friends we have in Mississippi (her father grew up there, and the McCain family roots in the state also go deep); the Mae West/W. C. Fields film My Little Chickadee ("the funniest movie I ever saw"); the fate of the shah of Iran ("The way we treated that man was disgraceful.… His problem was he never let anyone beneath him have enough power"); her friendship with J. Paul Getty ("I just loved him—he could tell you about everything"), and the party she has just attended at the Turkish embassy ("It was so glamorous you can't believe it"). She begins almost every sentence with "honey," and when the shoot is over, she tucks, with gusto, into a plate of cold lobster mayonnaise. At her departure, she assures us all that "this was the most fun I've ever had."

She may well have meant it—"I'm happiest wherever I am right this minute," she has told me—but there is no question that she has had a lot more fun than this.

Roberta Wright McCain was born on February 7, 1912, to Myrtle and Archie Wright, who had accumulated lots of land in Oklahoma and Texas just before the oil boom, and subsequently moved the family to Los Angeles. The two youngest of five children, she and Rowena were "always real athletic," she says. "We could run faster and jump higher, and at church suppers or what-have-you, we were always going to win the race. There was no conceit about it or anything; everybody just knew the twins could do it." Her father instilled the travel bug in his children early on, driving them through the Mojave Desert and taking them on trips to see the source of the Mississippi and to learn about the Great Lakes. With their mother the twins went by train to New York. "She always got her linen on sale at B. Altman's in January and June, and she bought our clothes at Best's."

When Roberta eloped at nineteen with Jack McCain, a young Navy ensign ("the lowest of the low," she says of his rank), she took her schoolbooks with her to Tijuana, where they married in a room above Caesar's bar. The event earned the groom a reprimand for going AWOL and merited a headline in the San Francisco Examiner: SOCIETY COED ELOPES WITH NAVAL OFFICER: ROBERTA WRIGHT DEFIES FAMILY. Rowena describes their mother as having a "cat fit" over the nuptials, and looking back, Roberta says she can understand why she "was out of sorts" with her daughter pretty much all the time. "I realize now I was so immature. I just took life as it came—still do."

The latter turned out to be good strategy for a naval wife who occasionally camped out in Quonset huts and moved her three children, Sandy, John III, and Joe, from port to port while her husband was away for long stretches. She insists she loved every place she settled, except maybe Panama, "but that was because it was so hot and there wasn't any air-conditioning." In his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, McCain writes that his mother was obliged to fill the roles of both parents, and that he "became my mother's son," adding that what he lacked of Roberta's "charm and grace," he made up for by "emulating and exaggerating her other characteristics. She was loquacious, and I was boisterous. Her exuberance became rowdiness in me.… She has an irrepressible spirit that yields to no adversity." A touching tribute to be sure, but Roberta will have none of it. "Obviously," she told a reporter when the book was released, "that means all the trouble he got into came from me."

As her husband ascended the ranks, life became a tad more glamorous. Madame Chiang Kai-shek (whom she describes as "misunderstood") gave her presents, and in Hawaii she became close friends with Clare Boothe Luce. While in London she would frequently spend country weekends at the estates of both Getty and Lord Mountbatten. "My eyes were just rolling around in my head like marbles, I was so impressed with the people we were meeting all the time," she tells me. "But they were famous because they'd amounted to something."

It was in London that she learned that "Johnny," as she invariably calls her son, had been shot down in Vietnam. First she waited days to find out if he was alive, and then she waited five and a half years for him to be released. When I ask if she was a nervous wreck through it all, she says, simply, "No. I believe in God's will, I really do. When I pray, I only ever ask for that; I don't ask for things like 'Please help Johnny get into Princeton.' " Besides, she says, "I had talked all that patriotic talk, so in times of fish or cut bait, do I stand up to the claims I've made or not?"

Not only was her husband a decorated admiral, her father-in-law was as well. "I would have been ashamed if my son had not served his country. The ones I feel sorry for are these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds out there now who lose a leg. But Johnny chose his profession; he was doing his job," she says, adding that I could go down in a plane crash doing mine. "This is life."

"When Johnny was in prison, that woman never made a peep," says Rowena of her twin. "Same thing after Jack died." Still, while Roberta may have been stoic, she never lost her sense of delight in the world. "We were invited everywhere, and I always wanted to go along," Roberta says. When her husband died in 1981, on a flight from Europe to Washington, where they had finally settled, she kept going, traveling with Rowena from the Jordanian desert to Tasmania for two or three months each year. Two years ago, when she could no longer get insurance on the car she had left in Europe, a Mercedes "baby Benz," she had it shipped back to the States and drove it across the country to her nephew in San Francisco—by way of Mississippi, Arkansas ("I couldn't find the Ozarks, or at least I didn't see all the beauty I'd read about"), Louisiana, and Arizona, where she was given a ticket for going 112 miles an hour. "The policeman said, 'Didn't you see me?' and I said, 'Yeah, I saw you,' " she tells me, laughing. "I went straight to the next town and got the money to send to the police. I thought the quicker it was over, the better, so nobody would find out."

"She knows everything that's in every museum in this world," says Rowena. Indeed, when she's not on the road, she avails herself of the offerings of her home city, going to the National Gallery or the Freer (she has a whole room full of the Chinese porcelain she loves, and the Freer has a stunning collection) every Tuesday morning for three hours (as long as she can legally park her car, a red BMW). On occasion, she says, she "hoists herself up to New York," taking the train (with a stop in Philadelphia to visit the Museum of Art there "until my feet fall off") and checking into the New York Yacht Club "because it's cheap." An avid reader, she is currently engrossed in The Odyssey of Chinese Imperial Art Treasures ("It's like a paper chase—it ought to be a movie") and, of course, the newspapers. "I think the treatment they've given Hillary is just awful. She's a human being, and she's certainly worked hard. I mean, anything you say, you can take two ways, even if it's about the weather."

She credits her longevity to good genes (her father remained active until he died of cancer at 98) as well as her California upbringing. Rowena concurs. "We played outside all the time and only ate fresh vegetables and fruits—crates of oranges from California and apples shipped in from Maryland. Our parents had some sense. They never let us drink Coca-Cola or coffee or anything like that, and the only cakes we ever saw were at other children's birthday parties." Both sisters rarely touch alcohol, though Rowena professes to love the occasional glass of champagne and reports seeing Roberta drink beer, but only in Europe.

"I don't do anything I'm supposed to do," Roberta tells me on the phone when I ask her how she manages to maintain her almost astonishing vitality. "I don't exercise, and today I've already eaten half a box of caramel popcorn." The regimen, or lack thereof, seems to be working. Her posture is straight as an arrow, her gait is brisk, and, though a doctor told her once she had arthritis in her hands, she says, "I guess I do, but I've never had an ounce of pain from it.

"Honey, I've had a dream life, and it was all luck," she says. I venture that the impetuosity and appetite her mother so often bemoaned might have had at least a bit to do with it. "I'm glad my mother's not around, because I still don't plan ahead or think things out." She laughs. "Mother told me once, 'If the gardener asked you to go to Chinatown with him, you'd go.' And I thought, Well, of course I would."

"The Firecracker" has been edited for; the complete story appears in the August 2008 issue of Vogue.

Monday, August 4, 2008

108 Years of Staying Active

Original Source - The News & Observer:

Centenarian stayed active with her hands and her mind

Andrea Weigl, Staff Writer

When Olga Wilsberg was born, William McKinley was president. In her 108 years, she saw 18 other U.S presidents take office.

But if Wilsberg knew the secret to a long life and a sharp mind, she never shared it.

"I don't know why. I'm just hanging on," she said three years ago in an interview with her hometown paper, The Daily Reflector in Greenville, N.C.

Wilsberg died June 12.

Her family credits her active lifestyle -- one that involved baking, sewing, card playing, reading, daily walks and exercise for most of her 100-plus years. She didn't smoke and only occasionally drank a glass of wine or the half a glass of beer that she preferred when eating pizza.

"My mother's mind, up to the day she died, was perfect," said her son, Harold Wilsberg, 83, of Mattituck, N.Y. "She could remember everything."

Her granddaughter agreed. "She was alert until the end," said Sharon Cummings of Raleigh.

Olga Wilsberg was born in Greenport, a town on Long Island, N.Y. She was the second youngest of nine children. One of her earliest memories was being hit by a car at the age 6 or 7. She remembered lying under the car after being hit and looking up to see the brass kerosene lamps that served as headlights, according to Cummings.

She graduated from the eighth grade. At the age of 21, she married Ernest Wilsberg and moved 13 miles down the road to Mattituck, N.Y. They had two sons and a daughter.

Life in the Great Depression

Her relatives say she was a product of her times. She learned to be frugal, a habit held over from raising a family during the Depression. Her husband worked as an engineer on yachts and traveled to Florida for months at a time. She often was left alone to raise their children, especially during the winter.

She made friends with the local farmers who would let her pick berries and beans left on the vine. She would can the fruits and vegetables and stock her pantry with them. One day when a nor'easter blew a load of scallops onto the beach, she filled pillowcases with them and then called her neighbors to do the same.

In the summer, she would rent rooms to tourists for $12 a week. Her children would sleep on the back porch to make room for boarders.

"Those were tough times in the early 1930s," said her daughter, Doris Jenkins of Greenville.

Wilsberg and her husband eventually bought a house in Florida and split their time between the Northeast and the South. In the 1980s, they came to live with Jenkins in North Carolina. In 1985, Wilsberg's husband, who also lived to the century mark, died. Afterward, the mother and daughter settled into life together in Greenville.

Sharon Cummings recalls her grandmother, who also was known as "Gram," as an active woman. She was constantly baking, knitting baby clothes, crocheting and quilting. She played a mean hand of gin rummy and spades. She devoured books from the library. She had her hair rolled and curled.

Cummings said her grandmother also was prone to speak her mind.

"She was not just passive, sitting in her chair," Cummings said. "She was telling me how to raise my children whether I wanted to know or not."

Wilsberg stayed in excellent health. She told The Daily Reflector that she didn't even take aspirin. She lived with her daughter until she was 106.
After her death on June 12, Cummings, her granddaughter, said the hospice workers told her, "Her mind was still there. Her body just gave up."

* * *

Olga Wilsberg was married to her husband, Ernest, for 66 years until he died in 1985. She is survived by two sons, Ernest Wilsberg and Harold Wilsberg, both of Mattituck, N.Y.; a daughter, Doris Jenkins of Greenville; nine grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren; and four great-great grandchildren.

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or

Exercise, Physical Hobbies, Low Calories & Stress For Fewer Disabilities and Long Life

Original source: The News & Observer:

Centenarians' could strain budgets

Published: Apr 28, 2008 12:30 AM
Modified: Apr 28, 2008 05:15 AM

Thomas Goldsmith, Staff Writer

At 109, Alberta Thompson began life in the 19th century, lived every minute of the 20th and, despite some trouble getting around, remains sharp in the 21st.

Until recently, Annie Laurie Williams, 105, climbed up and down the stairs at her Five Points-area home, part of her routine of daily exercise and a diet built largely on fruits and vegetables.

And Dr. Harold Eliason, a retired physician who lives at the Forest at Duke retirement community in Durham, celebrated his 104th birthday in February.

All three centenarians are trendsetters.

About 95,000 Americans are now 100 or older, census estimates show, and their closely watched numbers are predicted to more than quadruple by 2030, reaching 1.15 million by 2050.

How healthy they remain in old age may have a dramatic effect on federal entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid, health-care experts say. The annual cost for treating elderly and disabled people under these programs is currently $400 billion, Congressional Budget Office numbers show. The vital question: Will people in their 90s and 100s have longer periods of mobility and independence or just more years of disability and dependence?

"If we don't do a better job, this really large group of people who reach advanced old age will be a burden on our health-care system," said Dr. Jack Guralnik, an epidemiologist and gerontologist at the National Institute on Aging in Maryland.

In North Carolina, the cost to Medicare of a chronically ill patient's last two years of life can easily surpass $50,000, according to the 2008 Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care. The healthier the state's older people remain, the more tax dollars will be saved.

"The costs are definitely higher" for chronically ill older people, said Denise K. Houston, a researcher and assistant professor at Wake Forest University's J. Paul Sticht Center on Aging and Rehabilitation. "We are managing diabetes and heart disease, yet still having poor function, which leads to loss of independence earlier."

A 30-year leap in U.S. life expectancy during the last century -- from 47 to 77 -- means that the demographic group known as the "old old" is growing faster than any other. Nearly one out of three women who is 50 today will reach 90, demographers say.

"This magic number of 100 really captures people's imagination," Guralnik said.

Yet those who have passed the milestone express ambivalence. Eliason, who was born in West Virginia and became a pediatrician, chafed at some of the boundaries aging has placed upon him.

"It's getting kind of tedious; life isn't a bowl of cherries," Eliason said this week. "I'm getting to the point where I couldn't walk a block if I had to."

Eliason remained mobile well into his 11th decade. Only a recent knee injury has limited his walking. He jokingly attributes his good health to a secret fountain of youth, but decades of bowling and golfing were probably more of a factor.

Along those lines, academic studies offer some common sense for people who want to reach the century mark in good shape: Remain active, don't smoke, and eat a sensible diet, typically one low in calories. Houston, from Wake Forest, recently led an academic study showing people with a healthy body weight at age 25 and age 50 were less likely to become disabled in old age.

"The longer you are overweight, the worse off you are," she said. "Obesity puts a lot of stress and strain on the joints and on being able to function independently."

When people reach about 65, doctors can make a fairly accurate prediction of whether they will become disabled by conducting a walking-speed measurement and a low-tech mobility test. Patients have to perform tasks such as standing on one leg with eyes closed for 30 seconds or getting up from a chair, without using hands, as many as 10 times. A low score means an increased risk of disability and death.

Never too late

But even sedentary older people can benefit from more exercise.

"A well-designed program combining aerobic, strength, balance and flexibility exercises can make a difference for those who are at high risk of losing mobility," said Guralnik, the National Institute on Aging researcher, noting that tests for much older people are less rigorous.

Scientists have prolonged lifespan in simple organisms such as yeast by manipulating genes. But researchers say that's a distant prospect for humans, given the medical and ethical issues involved.

As for the substantial risk of developing dementia, studies show that regular exercise reduces that likelihood by 30 percent to 40 percent.

Other factors affecting advanced age aren't as obvious: Really old people typically don't get too stressed out.

"I don't think that much bothers me," said Eliason, the retired pediatrician.

Thompson recalled being so sick in years past that she begged God to come and take her. But she takes comfort in memories of her late son, in seeing her granddaughter, who lives in Raleigh, and in her close relationship with staff members at Aversboro Assisted Living in Garner, where she moved last year.

"I try to take everything as it comes," Thompson said. or (919) 829-8929



Two studies earlier this year showed that certain factors may not only lengthen lives, but also provide more late-life years free of disability.

* A study of New England centenarians showed that more than seven in 10 lived with an age-related disease for 15 years or more. Researchers say that means that staying active, or escaping disability, may be more important to long life than remaining disease-free.

* A Boston-based study showed that men at age 70 had a better than even chance of living to 90 if they exercised moderately two to four times a week and did not smoke, have high blood pressure, weigh too much or have diabetes.

On the flip side, if any of those five good-health factors turned negative, it reduced the probability of living to 90 by about 10 percentage points. A man with all five bad markers has a negligible chance of living to 90, the researchers said.


It's been said that the only people who want to be 100 are in their late 90s.

For those who'd like to shoot for that level, aging expert Dr. Robert Butler cites three general factors that could help:

* Find purpose: Dote on grandchildren, follow a sports team, or forge an active faith life -- all provide a larger purpose to life that keeps people engaged.

* Foster social networks: Maintain a group of close friends. This is often more difficult for men than women.

* Develop healthy habits: Everything you've always heard -- exercise, don't smoke, drink alcohol moderately. In author Michael Pollan's mantra, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."