The 100th Birthday Party
November 22, 2023
by Amy Givler, MD
Permit me to humbly suggest the following: If you are ever invited to a 100th birthday party, consider attending. And if the centenarian is one of your dearly departed mother’s most treasured friends, do whatever you can to attend. And if she was also someone you yourself loved since you were a child because she stayed involved during sleepover weekends with her daughter (involving dress-up playing, and pool swimming, and butter making), then attending her party needs to be your highest priority. And if, during your college years, she poured love and comfort into your life when you were far from your home but near to hers, then by all means go out of your way to absolutely positively attend.
The most recent, and indeed the only, 100th birthday party I’ve attended (impelled by the above incentives) took place last July. The honoree was Nancy Potter, whom our family called “Uppy,” from her maiden name, Upp. She and my mother trained as nurses together, graduating in 1953, and though Uppy was seven years older, they were lifelong fast friends. In fact, Uppy was with Mom on one of their twice-yearly “adventures” the day before my mother died, quite suddenly, in 2016.
For the last seven years, staying connected with Uppy has been akin to staying connected to my mom. And so, although I live in Louisiana and Uppy in Massachusetts, I made sure to visit every year. Over those years, her mobility decreased and her memory slipped away; yet, she always knew who I was and always shared her memories of, and her love for, my mother.
Spending her 90s in relatively good health was a great achievement. Though only 2 percent of Americans currently reach their 100th birthday, that number is swelling. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2022 there were 89,000 Americans over age 100. By 2040, there will be twice that many.
The New England Centenarian Study is compiling research into what contributes to living 10 decades. Genetics plays a part, no question, but delaying the onset of chronic disease until age 80, or even avoiding chronic disease altogether, is a big contributor. Dr. Peter Attia, whose podcast The Drive is about “health, performance, longevity, critical thinking, and pursuing excellence,” recently wrote Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity, focusing on minimizing what he calls the “Four Horsemen,” that is, the four chronic diseases of aging that are the most common causes of death. He calls them the “causes of slow death.” They are:
- Heart disease
- Neurodegenerative disease
- Type 2 diabetes and related metabolic dysfunction
Uppy avoided these diseases until she was well after 90. As the title of an oft-cited 1999 paper states, “The Older You Get, The Healthier You Have Been.” The gist of the paper is: the longer you can put off these diseases, or at least manage them well, the more likely you will remain independent in your last decade of life.
You would think my attending her 100th birthday party would be a no-brainer. Yet, I had to talk myself into it, for she would be the only person I knew, and I tend to avoid situations where I don’t know a critical mass of fellow attendees.
However, from the moment I arrived at her home, I was engulfed in a warm, welcoming spirit. There were around 20 of us, and, of course, for each one of us our first stop was greeting and chatting with Uppy. She was happy, though clearly a bit fuzzier than the last time I had seen her a year before.
But then we guests gravitated to each other.
“How do you know her?” quickly morphed into stories of how she had impacted each of our lives, and how much we each loved and appreciated her. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had been a childhood friend of her daughter Amy. Tragically, Amy, her only child, had died at age 13 of aplastic anemia. No effective treatment was available back in 1974. Uppy had dedicated the rest of her life (and her powerful brain and her superior fundraising skills) to helping researchers find cures for childhood cancers, volunteering at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for 35 years. She was so valued there that she had her own office. She and her husband Joe sponsored a fellowship in pediatric oncology at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
The party guests included physicians and researchers she had worked with, nieces and nephews, and both former and current neighbors. She had stayed involved in the lives of many of her daughter’s middle school friends, giving emotional support through their adolescence and young adulthood. She helped raise them. Several of them were there. The common theme was that knowing Uppy had brought each one of us joy. I knew she cared about me and everyone there felt the same. She was outward-focused.
I left that party feeling a glow that only gradually abated. And then, when I got the call two months later that she had died, the glow flared up again. You may ask, “Why, weren’t you sad?” Yes, I was sad. I will miss her and the link she was to my mother, but the focus of her life had been other people, and age had robbed her of that focus.
When I read this poem by Piet Hein, a Danish physicist turned poet, I thought of Uppy:
Living is a
Thing you do
Now or never.
Which do you?