By: Jose Rodriguez, MD
Two years ago, I took my entire family to San Sebastian de Las Vegas del Pepino, Puerto Rico to celebrate my maternal grandmother’s (Abuela Orpa) 100th birthday. We had a wonderful time and it made me realize that there is a real possibility that I might have my own mother with me for another 30 years! While visiting family to celebrate her birthday, I seized the opportunity to take advantage of my grandmother’s wisdom. While she is reserved, I was able to extract some information from her regarding how to get to 100 years of age. Since it was given to me in Spanish, I will include the words as she gave them to me, but because she is fluent in Spanish, I will also include my English translation.
Before we examine her wisdom, I will add a few details about my grandmother. She is now the only one of her siblings who is still alive. She was married to my grandfather for over 65 years and has been a widow for over 17 years. She lives in the house that she built with my grandfather where lives alone with help from an “empleada.” Her mental acuity is remarkable, she reads without glasses, and I am continually impressed with her longevity. She left school after 12th grade even though she only needed one more semester to graduate and become a teacher. Her mother was a college graduate and the local elementary school was named after her. That school has since closed in the epidemic of school closings resulting from the exodus of people fleeing the hurricanes and economic crisis Puerto Rico has endured in the last decade.
How to get to 100 years:
- Evitar come y vetes: The direct translation for this is “Avoid Eat and Go” locations. Fast food was brought to Puerto Rico long after it was popular in the United States, relatively late in my grandmother’s life. Yet she knew to avoid them.
- Dejar de comer las cosas fritas: “Stop eating fried food!” I think that Abuela Orpa intuitively knew what some of us more educated folk refuse to learn. She says that she stopped eating fried food because it gave her acid reflux. Frying is bad.
- Evitar de comer carne de pollo del supermercado: “Avoid chicken from the supermarket.“ She told me that it really does not have any flavor. I am not sure where this comes from, but it seems like good advice. As Americans, we eat too much meat to begin with, so avoiding the place where we get it can seriously reduce our consumption of that product.
- Estar siempre trabajando o siempre ocupada: “Work or be busy always.” There is evidence to support that work supports mental acuity. Abuela Orpa is now 102 years old and is still working every day.
- Regañar y mandar mucho: “Scold and command often.” By far my favorite pearl of wisdom. While scolding is not my preferred method of correction, I believe that this comes from Abuela Orpa’s constant concern for others, and what she tells me today, at her 102 birthday, is to be concerned for the welfare of others. Sometimes that requires a correction and instruction. She also said that it allows her to always be invested and paying attention to her surroundings.
- Despertarse temprano: 530 am si vas a lavar. 6:15-6:30 si no vas a lavar. “Wake up early: 5:30 am if you are washing clothes, 6:15-6:30 a.m. if you are not.” In my entire life, I have never known Abuela Orpa to get up after the sun came up. She was always washing, working, cleaning, and cooking before I awoke, even when she was visiting me. The idea of “seizing the day” has served her well and I will try to get it to serve me as well. Abuela Orpa never uses an alarm clock. Every day she wakes up with San Judas Tadeo (St. Jude the Apostle). He’s been at it for over 70 years. Abuela Orpa told me that when she was younger she didn’t need him to wake her.
- Comer muchas verduras, si se puede del país: “Eat a lot of vegetables, if you can, from local sources.” There is wisdom here because the farther the vegetables have to travel, the earlier they need to be picked before they are ripe. They then need to be preserved, likely with radiation and chemicals. I am a scientist, and although the methods of preservation are not designed to hurt humans, they also can’t be good for us. Perhaps her secret to 100 years is that Abuela Orpa lived on a farm in paradise, so she could get fresh vegetables every day from her property.
- Comer huevos pero no muchos y no después de tener muchos años: “Eat eggs, not too many, but not after getting older.” This is fascinating advice, as it recognizes the controversy and complexity of eggs. They have many benefits, but can play a negative role in our cholesterol.
- Poner una puñalada de arroz crudo en la boca. “Put a fistful of raw rice in your mouth.” I have no idea if this works, or why she does it, but it doesn’t look like it can hurt. When I asked her about this one at her 102 birthday she said, “Erase that!” She does not remember where that came from, and neither does my mom, so don’t do that one.
- Usar aceite bueno: “Use good oil.” She is referring to a specific brand of olive oil and canola oil. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but it is lifesaving advice. In my family, when you fried something like bacon, you kept the grease by the stove and used it for the next meal. Abuela Orpa says you can only use that oil twice because afterwards, it can affect your blood pressure. You can see how those habits could go bad quickly. A little wisdom to prevent sickness.
- Comer gandinga a menudo (órganos-corazón y riñones de cerdo): “Eat “gandinga” often (organs—heart and kidneys of a pig).” This sounds completely gross to me, so I won’t be trying it. However, I do hear that organ meat has less fat than muscle—so it might actually be healthier. She told me when she was 102, that she really does not eat it as much as she had once.
- No tomar refresco ni cerveza, ni nada que tiene alcohol, ni tabaco: “No drinking sodas, beer, nor anything that has alcohol, nor tobacco.” No reason to explain this—there are volumes of studies showing how these substances are not healthy.
- Una taza de café todos los días: “Drink a cup of coffee every single day.” I find it fascinating that coffee is on this list as something to take every day. But if you’re up at 5 am for 100 years, I am not sure how else you would live.
- Comer la comida de productos naturales de la finca o del país: “Eat food from natural products from the farm or from the island of Puerto Rico.” Again, there are good things that happen when you eat things that are grown locally.
- Leer mucho: “Read a lot.” This must be related to her longevity because she has a very active mind at 102 years, and for some of us, it is still hard to follow. The blessing of a clear head is not something that every 100-year-old woman enjoys, but Abuela Orpa does!
- No comer cosas procesadas ni nada de paquete. “Do not eat processed things nor anything from a package.” Wisdom from years back. If it does not rot quickly, then it can’t be good for us.
- Comer frutas y jugo fresco de la finca. Muchas chinas de la casa exprimidas a mano: “Eat fruits and fresh juice from the farm. Many oranges from the house that you squeeze yourself.“ This comes from something else that Abuela Orpa does: She does not eat unless she is very busy working. Imagine if we only ate when we exercised? We would be much healthier as a people.
- Abrir las ventanas todos los días para tener aire fresco. “Open the windows every day to have fresh air.” This is why Puerto Rico is paradise. No bugs, air that refreshes the soul, and the coqui music that is like a lullaby to put every tired visitor to bed. You can only hear them with the windows open.
- Caminar mucho por la finca: “Walk often through the farm.” Another comment on how much we need to exercise.
- Vivir agarrada de los pies de Jesucristo. “Live with holding on to the feet of Jesus.” Abuela Orpa said that praying often, helping your neighbor, visiting the sick and providing them service is something you need to do. She remains involved in her community even now. This is also a part of her faith tradition. Imagine this: Abuela Orpa had two sons that were drafted for the Vietnam war. For as long as I have known Abuela Orpa, she always wore a white dress. This comes from a promise that she made to God—to wear white dresses for the rest of her life if He would bring back her sons from the Hell that was the war in Vietnam. They (my uncles) came back relatively unscathed—and are both grandparents now. Abuela Orpa, to this day, still wears a white dress. I think that her connectedness is one of the keys to her longevity.
So there it is: How we can all get to 100 years old. While some of these recommendations are controversial, what is meaningful to me is that they have allowed me to speak about my amazing grandmother. She comes from a long line of incredible women, able to accomplish remarkable things in a society that remains both patriarchal and sexist. And yet, in spite of it all, she is way ahead of all of us, and will likely live longer than all of us.
Jose Rodriguez, MD, is a clinical professor with the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah. He practices at the Redwood Health Center and his areas of interest in research include minority groups, global health, and more.