Centenarians say friends are key to growing old

RETIRE31
Hatboro's Edna Massimilla, just turned 100 and still writing songs, is surrounded by daughters (from left) Kathy Tramontana, Alice Cook, Joan Pascucci, and Mary Dunlap.

Edna Massimilla spends a lot of time - in person and on the phone - with friends and family. And that's helped people like her live to age 100, according to new research studies.

Professor James Lubben, founding director of Boston College's Institute on Aging, points to data showing that people who lack a social network of friends or family are more likely to neglect good health practices and to experience psychological distress, cognitive impairment, the common cold, and even death.

Isolation is "on a par with smoking" for the elderly, he noted.

Seniors become particularly vulnerable to isolation as they decline physically, but isolation then makes them more vulnerable to worsening health.

Social health should "be as important as mental health and as physical health," said Lubben, also a professor of social work at Boston College.

Massimilla agrees. A poet and writer of music and books, she uses a laptop computer, an electric typewriter and an iPad, the latter with assistance from her grandkids.

"I'm a member of ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] and I have over 50 copyrights," she said. "I am always anxious to try new technology."

Her most famous poem, Heaven's Very Special Child, was one she wrote in 1956 and was printed in Ann Landers' syndicated newspaper column (see box). Massimilla wrote the poem about the third of her five daughters, Ruth, who was born with Down syndrome. The poem quickly became a sensation, and is still reprinted in newspapers today.

What is it that centenarians do to live longer?

"Keep busy. You'll rust out quicker than you'll wear out," Massimilla advised.

Born in 1916 in Queens, N.Y., Massimilla graduated from business college and worked as a legal secretary. She married and moved with her husband to Hatboro, Pa., where they opened a real estate agency and raised five daughters.

Her husband went back to seminary after Ruth was born in 1952 and Massimilla became a minister's wife.

While the Rev. John Massimilla worked at churches around Delaware and Pennsylvania, she took side jobs as a newspaper reporter for the Milford Chronicle and Harrington Journal.

After her 1956 poem went viral, so to speak, thousands of letters poured in to the Massimillas from other parents of children with disabilities.

"Because we had a disabled daughter, we were especially keen to help those with challenged children," she recalls.

They answered each letter personally, and Edna still receives some to this day from families and caregivers.

"We experienced the same trials and frustrations of so many families," she said.

The couple resisted suggestions to institutionalize Ruth, who lived until 1995, "largely due to Mom's care," said daughter Joan. Even after Ruth died, Massimilla was so keen to continue caregiving that, at age 80, she considered taking in foster children.

Today, she's slowed physically, but not mentally.

"I'm still writing all the time, answering letters. I'm on Facebook, although I don't respond much," she admits with a smile.

"I stay up half the night writing down my ideas and songs" for organ, which she plays for other residents at Wesley Enhanced Living in Hatboro.

She and daughter Alice are at work on a book of devotions for dog owners; her other books are available on Amazon.

"Sitting around all day isn't good. You've got to stay active," she added.

The same advice comes from Caroline Young, who will turn 104 in August. A resident at Kendal Crosslands in Kennett Square, she and two of her sisters moved there as a group after they decided to live in the same continuing-care facility.

Young also reads voraciously - mostly romances and mysteries - continues knitting, and travels to her native Long Island when she can.

She visits the in-house library twice a week and also completes the crosswords.

Physically, Young has also slowed down somewhat. She's had both hips replaced - most recently in 2006 at the age of 93 - and continues to attend parties and family functions for grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Closeness used to be a tradition for many families. Born in 1912 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Young recalls how her grandparents, uncle and parents all lived in rowhouses next door to each other.

That helped in the care of her grandmother, who lived to be 92. Young's mother also had good genes, living to the age of 90.

"Not only do I have good genes, but I have good care," she added.

Young and her husband moved into the Kendal continuing-care facility the day it opened in 1988.

"I still make my own breakfast and lunch, and I wash my own dishes," she added.

Once in a while, she'll indulge in a glass of wine. Otherwise, there's nothing special about her diet.

Mostly, friends and family are the constant in her life.

"It doesn't matter how big the family, but the closeness," she adds.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund


Heaven's Very Special Child By Edna Massimilla ©1956

A meeting was held, quite far from earth

"It's time again for another birth"

Said the Angels to the Lord above,

"This special child will need much love."

Her progress may seem very slow,

Accomplishments she may not show

And she'll require extra care

From all the folks she meets down there.

She may not run or laugh or play

Her thoughts may seem quite far away

In many ways she won't adapt,

And she'll be known as handicapped.

So let's be careful where she's sent

We want her life to be content

Please, Lord, find the right parents who

Will do this special job for You.

They will not realize right away

The leading role they're asked to play

But with this child sent from above

Comes stronger faith and richer love.

And soon they'll know the privilege given

In caring for this gift from Heaven.

Their precious charge, so meek and mild

Is heaven's very special child.