Living to be 100: Three stories on ways to get there

Centenarians aren’t such an exclusive club anymore with life expectancy increasing.

However, the odds that three residents of an assisted living center would all reach their 100th birthday during three consecutive months remain pretty remote.

A lunchtime celebration was conducted Aug. 17 at Green Tree Assisted Living in honor of Ken Wilkie, who was about to reach his first three-digit birthday the following day.

Just a few tables away sat Dorothy Sumner, who will become a centenarian herself on Sept. 1.

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Toward the back of the room sat Isla Richards, who will reach the same milestone on Oct. 11.

Advances in health, education and disease prevention are often credited for longer lives. However, genetics is still a significant factor — about 20 percent — in longevity.

But as the three Green Tree residents talked about their secrets of reaching an old age, there was a link between how well they lived with how long they lived.

Ken Wilkie

In the late 1940s, a person examined the lines on Laporte County native Ken Wilkie’s hands and proclaimed he would live to be 100, according to his daughter, Carol Hayes.

But rather than palm reading and destiny, Wilkie attributes his long life to both hard work and faith.

“He has a great faith in God,” Hayes said. “He lets the Lord take care of everything.”

Scientific researchers have indeed confirmed that regular church services do provide individuals with emotional support and respite from stress, according to an April 2015 article in Prevention Magazine.

For 75 years, Wilkie worked on his family’s farm near the town of Wanatah, located east of Valparaiso. But even after he retired from farming, Wilkie continued to mow five acres of grass until he was 89, he said.

Two different studies show self-disciplined, organized achievers such as Wilkie live longer and have up to an 89 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than the less conscientious.

But the fact that Wilkie’s 94-year-old wife, Ruth, has remained by his side for almost 75 years is likely a significant factor. Individuals have a 40 percent higher risk of death following the death of a spouse, according to a 2012 British study.

Dorothy Sumner

People with outgoing personalities tend to live longer — and those who grow up in show business tend to become extroverts.

When she was a teen, Dorothy Sumner performed as part of the Darwood Sisters, which billed itself as a “troupe of acrobats, contortionists and comic clowns.” Dorothy was the contortionist.

Sumner was performing at a fair in northwest Illinois when she accepted an offer for a date from a young event announcer on his summer break from Eureka College.

The name of her date was Ronald Wilson Reagan.

“I liked him personally, because he was a real good guy,” Sumner said. “But I just thought he was like everybody else.”

When asked whether she regrets not encouraging the affections of the future president, Sumner made it clear she hasn’t bothered much with regrets and worries her entire life.

In contrast, those who fret about impending doom, see the glass as half empty, and are harshly self-critical tend to die sooner, according to psychology professor Leslie R. Martin of La Sierra University.

As an adult, Sumner felt fulfilled by her work designing wedding gowns, formals and other clothing for businesses in both Tipton and Peru, and her creations were often in heavy demand, her daughter Holly Clark said.

Having an commitment and passion toward your work can certainly contribute to a longer life, according to Paul T. Costa Jr. of the National Institute of Aging.

Isla Richards

When asked how she’s lived to be almost 100 years old, Isla Richards didn’t hesitate to reply “clean living.”

Indeed, most researchers agree that those who avoid vices such as smoking, drinking and excessive eating increase their chances of living longer.

But as her great-niece, Tammy Sizemore, points out, Richards has also led an extremely purposeful life.

Just three years after marrying Lyle Richards in 1939, Isla Richards’ father, Homer Pruitt, died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 53.

Since her mother was both blind and alone, Isla Richards accepted the challenge of taking care of her mother until she died at age 82 in 1964.

Richards’ trait of putting others before herself served her well during an over 40-year career at Cummins, Inc. Eventually, she became executive assistant to E. Don Tull, who served as president of Cummins from 1960 to 1969.

But after retiring in the early 1970s, Richards turned her attention to caring for her husband until his death at age 88 in 2002.

While never having children of her own, Richards remained a caregiver to her dachshunds, enjoyed growing and giving fresh vegetables to neighbors, and was always anxious to host friends and family during holidays and celebrations at her house.

“In areas of the world where people live the longest, hard work is important, but not more so than spending time with family, nurturing spirituality and doing for others,” Emory University sociologist Corey Keyes said.