- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

Mary Chiswell calls herself “lucky.” She has lived through two world wars and the Depression. She remembers the flu epidemic of 1918 and the tremendous growth all around her Poolesville farm. She taught elementary school for 42 years, and has seen her former elementary school students grow into teens, adults, parents and grandparents.

“I am a fortunate lady,” Mrs. Chiswell says. “I was raised on a farm, I had good things to eat. I’m in good health. I had a cataract operation in 1999. My doctor says I see better than ever now.”

Mrs. Chiswell will be 101 in October. She is among an estimated 50,000 centenarians in the United States.

Centenarians are a fast-growing group. The 2000 Census counted 50,454 centenarians, a 35 percent increase from 1990. Authorities on aging project more than 200,000 centenarians in 2020, and more than 1 million by 2050.

It is true that Americans today have increased public health measures and access to better medicines and quality preventive care to stave off the onset of conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. That is a big part of the reason the life expectancy in this country increased from 47 in 1900 to 76 today, but it is only part of the picture, says Dr. Thomas T. Perls, a Boston geriatrics specialist and director of the New England Centenarian Study, an ongoing project that observes the oldest Americans.

Dr. Perls has found the older his centenarian subjects get, the healthier they have been. He also has found a probable genetic link to a long life. In a study of 444 relatives of centenarians, he found brothers were 17 times more likely than the general population to live to 100; sisters were eight times more likely to see the century mark.

“There used to be the thought that the older you get, the sicker you get,” Dr. Perls says. “What we have found is most of the centenarians are doing well for much of their 90s. We have found a strong genetic component, too, with children of centenarians with a markedly reduced risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes.”

There are also nonmedical components to living to 100, says Dr. Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. Dr. Cohen says he has found that many centenarians remain engaged in life, challenge brain cells, deal with stress and keep a positive outlook — all part of the recipe for long life.

“A greatly underappreciated part of longevity is involvement in social and productive activities,” he says. “Some studies have found that social activities can have the same positive effects as vigorous exercise in helping the body and challenging brain cells, keeping them vital. Having a sense of humor helps, too.”

Mary Chiswell: Looking at 101

Mrs. Chiswell recently attended the Maryland Department of Aging’s 11th annual Centenarians Recognition Luncheon in Baltimore. She also was at the 10th annual. She has every intention of being at the 12th, too.

“She doesn’t act 100,” says Rosa Abell, the woman who assists Mrs. Chiswell during the day. Mrs. Chiswell uses hearing aids and has broken a few bones, but is in general good health.

“She has great spirit,” Ms. Abell says. “She never complains.”

Mrs. Chiswell graduated from what now is Towson University in 1922. She taught school — “mostly second grade,” she says — starting in a one-room schoolhouse in Poolesville. She retired in 1964. She and her husband, a farmer who died in 1982, never had children.

“I enjoyed other people’s kids,” Mrs. Chiswell says. “Boy, school has changed. We used to stay at work until 4 p.m. Now it seems like the teachers go home at 3:15. Some of them don’t even keep a roll book anymore.”

Mrs. Chiswell still lives independently, but is assisted by Ms. Abell, a nephew and a cousin. She still plays bridge, hooks rugs and enjoys watching TV shows such as “Jeopardy.” She is proud to say she is the oldest member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Poolesville.

“I have a friend take me every Sunday,” Mrs. Chiswell says. “I enjoy the choir.”

Indeed, a strong religious or spiritual belief is a common trait among centenarians, says Lynn Peters Adler, founder of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, a Phoenix-based nonprofit group. Other key traits Ms. Adler has found: a sense of humor, a positive attitude, a strong will and a remarkable ability to adapt.

“I have found that most of the centenarians I know didn’t just become like this when they got older,” she says. “This is the way they have lived life.”

Rose Rogow: ‘Just accept things’

Rose Rogow, who turned 100 in March, was a modern woman way before the women’s movement. She was having fun back in the 1920s and 30s working as a stenographer, graduating from college and law school, and working as a lawyer for the Justice Department.

“I was having a good time,” says Mrs. Rogow, who lives at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville. “There were a dozen or so women in my law school class [George Washington, 1933]. The university president’s wife invited us to garden parties. Nowadays, its the men who are getting scarce in law school, not the women.”

Mrs. Rogow married her husband, Samuel, in 1944. Mr. Rogow, a former dental technician, died in 1996. The Rogows had no children.

“We had a long, good life together,” she says, looking at their wedding portrait in her immaculate room. “We were married over 50 years. I’m very lucky.”

Mrs. Rogow, who still wears her wedding band, remembers lots of details from her “very good life.” She is a lifelong Washingtonian, raised in the shadow of the Library of Congress.

“I used to go in and use the reading room,” she says. “My life was so good, I never wanted to leave home. Life is so different now than it was then. Now, everyone is in a rush to leave home and work hard.”

Mrs. Rogow remembers segregated Washington. She says she accidentally drank from the water fountain reserved for blacks at a train station on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It didn’t make any difference to me,” she shrugs, all these years later.

She remembers when a neighbor, a pharmacist, died during the 1918 flu epidemic. She remembers watching the 1969 moon landing on a sofa bed in the living room, and listening to football games and soap operas on the radio.

“My father was from Russia,” Mrs. Rogow says. “He was a tailor. He learned English by listening to the radio. He was a huge influence in my life.”

Mrs. Rogow remembers when women couldn’t vote. She still makes it a point to cast hers every year.

“I cherish my vote,” she says. “I do it by mail. It is very important and a great privilege to vote.”

Mrs. Rogow and her husband were fans of music and travel. They took a 90-day, round-the-world cruise in 1978 and several cross-country driving trips.

“I would drive, my husband took pictures,” she says.

Mrs. Rogow lives in an assisted-living facility, but says she is proud to be able to manage most tasks alone.

“I’m very grateful I have people nearby, but I try and find different ways to do for myself,” says Mrs. Rogow, demonstrating how she can still reach behind her neck to fasten her necklace. She has coifed hair and manicured nails.

“I’ve done that ever since I could remember,” she says. “My mother never came downstairs without her hair done.”

Having to slow down and use a walker has been hard, Mrs. Rogow says.

“I sit still, which is dull, but you manage,” she says. She still enjoys a good mystery story or romance novel and tries to read the newspaper every day. “I had some good friends, but they are gone. Thank God I’ve got my mind.”

Her advice for anyone approaching the century mark?

“Just accept things. Whatever comes your way, don’t fight it.”

Victoria Snosnowski: On the go

Longevity may well run in Victoria Snosnowski’s family. Mrs. Snosnowski’s mother lived to be 95. Mrs. Snosnowski will be 100 in October. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Md., with her daughter, Doris Hurman, who is a youthful 73.

“The secret of her longevity? I’m a challenge to her,” Mrs. Hurman jokes. “I say, ‘You can’t give me hell, I’m 73.’ Seriously, she’s got more upstairs than me or my husband.”

Mrs. Snosnowski has been a widow for 50 years. One of her three children recently died at age 77. She has lived through a hip replacement and a serious bout of meningitis. She owned and ran a South Baltimore liquor store until she was 70.

Her secret? “Good living,” Mrs. Snosnowski says. “I know what I had. I had three children. They were all good. All educated.”

She also knows what she still has. Mrs. Snosnowski recently attended the Maryland centenarians luncheon surrounded by many members of her extended family. That family includes eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The family helps Mrs. Snosnowski to be a rather active centenarian. She goes to the hairdresser every week. She crochets. She goes out to eat at least twice a week. She enjoys bingo with other seniors at a nearby church every Wednesday.

“She is very hip for an old lady,” says Debbie Hurman, one of her grandaughters-in-law.

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