STAYING POWER DOESN’T BEGIN TO DESCRIBE THIS PHENOM
By Fred Dickey
Jan. 19, 2015
She’s in good health, with a sharp memory, and has a happy face on standby for everyone she meets. However, she doesn’t have to have those things to be amazing. Just breathing is enough.
Josephine Patinella of La Mesa didn’t beat the odds. She made a fool of them. On Wednesday, she’ll turn 108 years old.
She was born in 1907, the first girl of six children. In that year, the female life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 51. In her native Sicily, it was 43.
A woman of 108 is not just another old lady. She is almost mythic, and has to be pondered with something like awe.
In her rustic village near Palermo, she would have lived much as did a French schoolgirl a century earlier standing by the roadside and watching Napoleon’s Grande Armée march by.
Or, she would have felt at home as a contemporary San Diego girl churning butter by hand in the dimness of a kerosene lamp on an outlying Mission Valley farm.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 was fatal to many millions, perhaps twice the number who died in World War I and maybe as lethal as the Black Death plague of 1348. It killed brutally, as sufferers drowned in their own fluids. Josephine’s father was one of its victims.
Josephine, age 11, also came down with the infection but managed to fight it off. To this day, it has been her only experience with serious illness.
She has been hospitalized four times in her life, and three were to give birth. Her single prescription medication today is a common thyroid drug.
In 1921, with no husband or father, she and her family emigrated to America at the urging of a relative. They settled in Brooklyn, and there Josephine remained for a half-century. She married and raised three girls.
In 1975, she and her husband, Frank, retired to La Mesa because the weather reminded him of Sicily. They were eventually joined by all three daughters. Frank died in 1987.
In later years, Josephine told her daughter Rose that at first she didn’t like America because her moderately well-off family had lived better in Sicily. However, she adjusted and went to work as a teenage embroiderer.
(In the interview, she brought out some of her work. It was a delicate piece of cloth embroidered exquisitely.)
Her life has been one of stolid determination. When her father died, her mother descended into depression, and pre-teen Josephine became the functional parent of all her siblings.
As she grew into a young woman, an independent spirit emerged when she joined a Seventh-day Adventist church.
For a Sicilian woman of that day to renounce Catholicism was certain to cause Vesuvius-magnitude shock waves. And it did. But Josephine withstood family and priestly pressure and has remained devout in her adopted church.
Though her only formal education was four grades in Italy, she taught herself to read English by painstakingly copying the Bible in longhand and then learning what the words meant.
Extreme old age is a lot more complex than gushed praise — “Doesn’t she look wonderful?”
As almost a supercentenarian (110-year-old), Josephine is the prisoner of a body that nearly has her in solitary confinement. Her hearing loss is about 90 percent. She has macular degeneration and can barely see enough to read, even with large print and a magnifying glass. Because of borderline deafness, verbal communication is possible only with those close to her. With a stranger, there’s little chance.
Talking is hard work for her, and her words are somewhat muffled. As difficult as she was for me to understand, I gathered up snatches of comments:
“I got a lot of pain (arthritis), but I don’t complain.”
“I taught myself to write in English through the Bible, word by word.”
“I love all kinds of people.”
“Medicine is not good for you.”
Words are nice, but Josephine can still smile, and she does so with visual poetry. Kindness, unlike those worn-down body parts, is not organic. It’s a spirit that renews with use.
The great angst of her old age is to have witnessed the deaths of the vast majority of the people in her life, including her eldest daughter. She is grateful that her two remaining daughters, ages 73 and 68, survive and live within driving distance.
There are also a lot of “begats” in her family: She has eight grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren, all living.
Josephine spends almost every day in her pleasant La Mesa apartment, attended by her middle-aged live-in companion, Betty Cowardin, of whom Josephine said to me: “I just love her so much.”
Until three years ago, she lived alone, doing her own cooking, cleaning and bill paying. Then that old-folks curse — a broken hip — happened. As it often does, it changed the way she lived.
Initially, the surgeon told the family he wasn’t going to operate on a 105-year-old woman. When she was told that, Josephine replied with characteristic determination: “Fix the hip!”
Normally, for a woman of ancient age to suffer a broken hip and survive, it would mean the entrance of the social worker who would gently raise the idea that maybe, just maybe, it was time for grandma to go into a nursing home.
That didn’t happen to Josephine as she recuperated, perhaps because she made it clear she was going home. A compromise was achieved by the employment of Betty, who is a member of Josephine’s church.
Today, Josephine moves with a walker, bent over the bars, taking one careful step at a time, Betty at her side. But wherever she’s going, she gets there.
Josephine’s mental acuity is greater than one might expect when we consider that the brain is a body part just like the heart, and time can enfeeble it in the same way. We could expect some dementia in Josephine, but her clear, focused eyes say otherwise. In halting words, she said to me, “I understand what’s going on.” And I could see in her face that she meant it.
(Another way to look at it: Her brain is just as healthy as her heart.)
Betty describes Josephine’s typical day. “She wakes up very early in the morning. She puts her robe and slippers on, and then we come to the kitchen. I get her breakfast ready. Most of the time she has the same thing, which would be oatmeal. It has to be with four blackberries, three prunes and one banana if it’s small, otherwise she will say cut it in half. And then a cup of milk. After that she’ll have her cup of coffee with cream and sugar, and then we do Bible study.
“I get her ready for the day. She likes to choose what she’s going to wear. She likes to have her hair neatly combed. Sometimes people from the church might drop by, or her daughters, or maybe one of the neighbors. She rests half an hour. We walk throughout the house. I always remind her about (the importance of) exercise.
“If it’s a nice day, we go to the patio. She likes to sit there, enjoy the sun, look at the sky and look at the trees.”
Betty used to tell Josephine what was happening in the world, but she stopped because it made the older woman sad, and there didn’t seem much point to it. When she does become aware of world events, Josephine reacts by saying, “It is written,” meaning all things are foretold in the Bible.
In his new book, “Being Mortal,” that wonderful writer Atul Gawande, M.D., says of (very) old age: “As people grow older, they interact with fewer people and concentrate more on spending time with family and friends.”
Obviously, being not only old but ancient, Josephine has no choice but to have a confined life. But she seems happy with it. It’s all about family and friends, as Gawande predicted.
In a Boston University School of Medicine study, it was found that centenarians generally have enjoyed healthier (earlier) lives. In that respect, the study concludes, “We believe that instead of the aging myth, ‘The older you get, the sicker you get,’ it is much more the case of, ‘The older you get, the healthier you’ve been.’”
The study shows that 85 percent of centenarians are women. “This may be because women handle age-related diseases better — how they do this is not clear — whereas at these ages, men more readily die from them.”
Did I forget to ask Josephine the secret of longevity? Don’t be silly. She has no more knowledge of that than the most-learned gerontologist. Mark it down to a sensible lifestyle, plus God, genes and lightning not striking. Pick one or all. As an abstainer, she didn’t even have benefit of that Italian elixir, vino rosso.
How much longer will Josephine be with us? Not a great deal longer, common sense says. The oldest woman in the world is 116.
But you know something? Her family is not counting. They still have Josephine the matriarch among them, and each day is a gift they could not have expected.
To Josephine, Wednesday will simply be the day before tomorrow.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.