Just when I’d settled myself in all cosy for a chat to Isobel who is 100 years old, she had me up on my feet following along with exercises that she does every day. She was correcting my form – ‘chin in, don’t stick your chin out’ and when I complained the exercises hurt my shoulders, she tells me ‘well, do more exercises.’
She never married. ‘I was lucky. I think so. Early on, I wanted to, well I met about three men that I could have, but things happen. But you know if I had married any of the men I fell in love with they would have been utter disasters. Looking back at it they would not have worked. And then you break up and all the mess you get into. I have no complications like that.’
Isobel has no children although she has taught many children all over the world. In her working life she was a teacher and established schools in third world countries. She has lived and taught in many countries including Africa, West Indies and Papua New Guinea. But today we are here to learn how she has stayed independent at the age of 100.
‘I do yoga every day on the floor. Down here,’ she points to floor in front of her chair. ‘I learned it from Giovanni in Italy when we went for the retreats for the meditation when I was 70. In the morning we’d meditate and then after breakfast we’d do the yoga. I love physical training, sport - perhaps that is why I am healthy. I used to teach sport as well as English and geography.’
‘Exercise is very important, walking and or yoga every day, even now I’m 100. If I haven’t walked, I try very hard to do the yoga, at least I can come and do that. I don’t keep to the rule every single day, something might happen and I just can’t do it, but then you don’t give up, you go on doing it the next day.’
‘Another thing that is very important is meditation. My close friend Frances, who I lived and travelled the world with, died when I was 70. Soon after that I came to know of WCCM -World Community for Christian Meditation. It’s very important, because I wouldn’t be here at 100 without it, I don’t think. It changed my life and still is [changing my life]. Daily meditation, twice a day, early in the morning and between 5 and 6 in the evening, 20 minutes. I find the morning meditation sets me for the day and the evening one is a nice folding up of the day.’
‘Meditation is simple as ABC, but not easy. Because the minute you sit to meditate, anybody will tell you, you mean to just sit quietly, immediately your ego, your false self, starts thinking ‘where did I put the keys’, ‘where did I do this’, ‘do you remember when you were in Italy doing this’, ‘do you remember when you were doing … you know. All those diversions.'
'I run a meditation group you see. I’ve had it for 25 years. People leave, quite a few drop out, they can’t cope with it, but always some have gone on. Brother Laurence says don’t read about it, just launch in. It’s not a tool to be narrow minded about it, having to be Christian, he says there are many roads up the mountain, and there are. You don’t have to talk about religion, you don’t necessarily have to be religious. I belong to the World Community which is a very big wonderful community. They have retreats in Italy. So I would go to Italy for a week retreat and I met very interesting people there. I am still in touch with some of them. And Father Laurence Freeman who’s the head of it, he would run the retreats.’
‘My aim is always to walk somewhere every day, unless it’s pouring rain. I have to have more stops than I did, you get tired. So I sit on people’s walls, that’s how you get to know people. We always had a dog when Frances was alive. So I’d go on long walks every day up the mountain. It’s quite a climb, loved it. I love mountains and mountain climbing. You can’t do what you used to do. I couldn’t climb up the mountain now. I try to walk, it’s getting less, but try to walk about ½ a mile a day. I will try every day to go. I take my stick and I go slowly, take breaks and talk with people I meet on the way. Walking is very important I think. I always have the stick, everywhere I go when I walk I use it. I can walk without it, but its far better to have it and most women are so proud they won’t have a stick, it makes them look old. But that stick is wonderful.’
Hearing about Isobel's yoga and walking you might think she has no health problems. But super agers are as tough as they come and Isobel explains what it is like to live in a body that is 100 years old.
‘I kept saying in the year before I turned 100 I don’t want to live to be 100 – and I literally meant it – I did not want to live to be 100 – but there I am. It gets harder. Your body breaks up and every morning when I wake up I wonder which part of me won’t work today.’
‘I have permanent dizziness, for 2 and a half years I have been permanently dizzy, nobody can find a cure. I went to the hospital in Sydney, I was there a day and they turned me upside down and did this and that and the other. They didn’t find a cure. So when I get up I have to look up and open my eyes wide. I stand up, I hold my head up high, and I open my eyes wide and then get going. I still get dizzy but it’s not as bad, you learn to live with it. I taught myself that, it’s the only thing that gets me going. I suppose it is to do with age.’
‘You see with my body, there is this shoulder, there’s this dizziness, my eyes are deteriorating, I broke this ankle in 2004 and it has acute arthritis in it. I have a pin in my leg, I broke my wrist, some of my fingers are contracted. So physically you are not as strong, and you deteriorate.’
‘You see I am not bent over, I am very upright. The best exercise I’ve found to get you going, that I knew from long ago, is to say:
‘Perhaps’ - stand up, be very firm, arms by your side, put your chin in, hold your head up, pull your tummy in and lift your shoulders up, right up;
‘Who knows’ - now put your elbows right into your waist and lift your hand up by your shoulders;
‘Maybe’ – relax and slump forward slightly, let your hands and arms dangle loosely down.’
Another reason that Isobel is still alive at 100 is because she will get a second opinion if she doesn’t think her doctor or specialist is helping.
‘I nearly died, about 5 years ago. I had mesenteric ischemia, which you’ve probably never heard of, nor had anybody here. I couldn’t eat solids, I could drink, but if I tried to eat any solid I just wanted to be sick. This went on and I saw a specialist from Sydney, and he kept saying it’s just gastric that you’ve got, did nothing. A friend of mine goes to another doctor, I said I think I’m going to get a second opinion from him. This doctor has two sons who are doctors in America. One of them got in touch with the Mayo clinic. Straight away they sent back and said this person has mesenteric ischemia, which is a blockage of the artery feeding the gut. Because the artery was almost blocked, no food could go down. By sheer good fortune I was able to see another specialist from Sydney. He looked me up and down and said, “If I don’t do something with you very quickly you’ll die.” He said, “I did treat a person before who had a severe stroke as a result.” I said, “I’ll risk the stroke - go ahead.” So he put me into hospital and I was operated on that same day. He came in that night, my arm was black and blue because he’d had to do the surgery through there and he laughed and said, “Well Isobel, we made it, just. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know that you’d be sitting up here smiling at me.” ’
Although Isobel lives alone, you could not say she is isolated. She says, ‘I have far more friends overseas than I have here, because I have lived and worked overseas so much,’ and she phones them frequently. She makes friends easily wherever she goes, whether it’s walking down her street, or taking a class. She collects friends from her many interests and is good at staying in contact. Isobel also says she often writes to authors of books she enjoys and even TV shows she has enjoyed and keeps in touch with these people.
‘I think some people are extroverts and talk easily to strangers, others are very reticent and won’t talk. You see, I know everybody down that road. They all know me. Because we talk. You meet new people every day. I met a woman a few months ago when we could only go out and walk during this lockdown thing. She was Dutch, a lovely person and oh we got on like a house on fire. I find it very easy to talk to people. I keep in touch by phone with a great many people.’
Isobel has great help from many of her neighbours. She mentions three couples and two men in their 70s who are her friends and very supportive. She sees it like this: ‘Well, you live with the people around you. You see, I am so fortunate in that I have got wonderful neighbours. I’ve had various physical ailments, accidents and illness but I’ve survived it all. When I was getting better from mesenteric ischemia the doctor said, “Oh good Isobel, you’re putting on weight, what you need is a boyfriend,” and I said to him, “Oh don’t worry doctor, I have two boyfriends.” ‘ I am very grateful for them helping.’
‘Getting food and occasional doctors’ visits, [I have] marvellous neighbours. That’s where I am so blessed. There is one who does all my shopping. But when Covid started my friends said I wasn’t to go down to the supermarket. Being old, they said, you could pick it up, so I don’t go. (Me: You don’t mind that, not going to the shop?) Oh I hate it, [shopping], I didn’t like shopping anyhow. I mean I did it as a necessity but it was no pleasure. One friend always keeps a list and then he brings it in every so often. I’m very lucky you see.’
‘We go out two or three times a week in the afternoon. He’ll go buy a take away cappuccino and some little thing, I sit in the car. At the beginning we all wore masks, but we don’t now up here. We drive to a lovely spot, above the lake here, and we park the car, and look down over the lake, and drink our cappuccino and eat our stuff and then we talk, and sometimes argue. As I said in my book, we have to agree to differ. He accepts what I think but he doesn’t agree with everything.’
‘Wait until you see my book that I wrote. My friend got me to write it when I was 99. He’s a very good photographer. He says I need to add another chapter because I am now 100. It’s about where I have travelled and everything I ever did. I have a lending copy but it’s out. I write down who has got it. It has gone everywhere. It went to America and went to Canada and England, of course.’ (Isobel is originally from England.)
Regarding Covid 19, Isobel says, ‘This Covid thing, I think somehow there may be a reason behind it. I think it’s to wake people up. Because honestly, the present generation’s love of money, the love of money is the root of all evil. And it is never satisfied. People who have [money] are always spiralling up. We need to keep the rules and consider other people and avoid unnecessary mixing. You’ve got to. That’s where it’s all spreading. Keep the rule and the rules are, keep this much distance from a person.’
‘I said when Covid came I was going to do two things. An hour of reading poetry and an hour of doing Italian every day. I’m afraid I haven’t kept it up. But I’ll go back to it. I’m very good at quoting. I just love poetry and I am always quoting bits of poetry. I have done Italian language classes here and made some good friends doing that as well.’
One philosophy Isobel lives by is to ‘Live a day at a time. Don’t worry about a future that may never happen. You worry about things that are going to happen and then they don’t happen, so what’s the point of worrying about them. Live a day at a time and don’t worry about a hypothetical future, or overplan in detail what you are going to do. Just live a day at a time. Get up in the morning - this is the day - and I am living a day at a time and I don’t know what is going to happen. I might be dead by tomorrow. You plan ultimately, but you don’t stand up and think, oh I’ve got to do this, oh I should be doing this. No, get up, this is the day which the Lord hath made, let us be glad and rejoice in it. Well, that’s what I do. Memories of the good old days are good, remembering back what I did, but don’t try to live in the past too much or you won’t live your present time. Don’t keep saying I used to do this, oh it was wonderful when I went somewhere. No, today. You’ve got to live in the present. Yesterday is history, most of it was wonderful, I’d like to have some of it back again but I can’t have it, it’s history. Tomorrow is a mystery, well you don’t know what is going to happen, it might be good, it might be bad, but you just take it. Today, that’s why I say get up in the morning and say ‘live a day at a time’. Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present. You see the gift in the present.’
This story was funded by MDS Training - Sector Support and Development Project and the Australian Government Commonwealth Home Support Program.