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A centenarian's busy first year in New Hampshire

At the time of this writing, the oldest living American is Elisabeth Francis of Houston. She is 114 years old. My father, John B. Robinson, is still a young whippersnapper, however. He turned 101 last month. The staff of the Inn at Edgewood threw a lavish celebration. Gary “Creekman” Sredzienski brought his accordion and Portsmouth Mayor Deaglan McEachern gave a dedication speech.

A few years ago, Dad started a keto diet out of the blue. That means lots of protein and almost no carbs. He also swore off cakes, cookies, ice cream and sweets.

“No problem,” said Wendy Switzer, the new manager of the small assisted living facility near South Street in Portsmouth. It was once an inn, tucked away among the pines on South Street. The building now houses nine residents. They call it a “community,” but the intimate atmosphere is more like family. The newest resident will turn 105 this fall.

Wendy's keto-friendly birthday cake was the hit of the party. “Not bad at all,” everyone agreed. The same could be said about my dad's first year as a centenarian.

He tends to downplay the negatives, including two recent surgeries and two minor falls. This time last year, he had just completed 33 radiation treatments, earning him the dubious title of “oldest cancer patient at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital.” The hospital in Dover gave him a cake for his 100th birthday in 2023. But since it wasn't ketogenic, he gave it to the staff at his then-home in Durham.

Dad jokes that his recent experiences with health care are nothing compared to his emergency appendectomy aboard a battleship in the Pacific during World War II. His four years in the Marine Corps, including service in the Battle of Iwo Jima and secret missions with the Beach Jumpers, are long gone. (See “When Your Dad Turns 100.”) He'll tell those stories if asked. But his focus is on today, particularly what's for dinner, what book he's reading, the weather, the news, and whatever project is spread out on his worktable.

He works at a card table in the corner of the living room, just off the entrance. He's been building model airplanes since he was eight, and now specializes in assembling 3D paper figures of animals, birds, ships and Christmas decorations. He downloads the designs to his Chromebook and prints the sheets of paper on a color printer at a small desk in his small, cozy room just down the hall.

Last week, Dad gave a class at the big table in the dining room. Eight Edgewood residents folded, twisted and glued eight paper bunnies. The class lasted three hours. “They weren't exactly fast bunnies,” Dad told me, “but we took our time and everyone took a bunny to their room.” His masterpiece, a feathered eagle with outstretched wings, took weeks to make from 39 sheets of paper. Today it stands proudly on the mantelpiece in the living room.

Did I mention that my father has an essential tremor? Cause unknown. It makes it difficult for him to hold a fork or a cup of coffee. But when he picks up an X-Acto blade, a miracle happens. His right hand becomes rock-solid, allowing him to carve out the most intricate details for his paper sculptures. For half a dozen years now, he has been participating in a clinical trial that began at Columbia University. Every 18 months, he undergoes a two-day battery of cognitive tests. The study is run by a university in Dallas, Texas. My father is a proud “brain donor” who will donate his gray matter to science.

I bring books and craft projects over when possible, but he devours them like a house on fire. We've made just about every 3D puzzle from the three-foot Empire State Building to St. Paul's Cathedral to a soccer-ball-sized globe of the Earth. The last project was a working model of a V-8 engine, a wooden race car with pistons powered by rubber bands, and a giant spider held together with metal screws. He's read police thrillers by Archer Mayer and science fiction novels by Andy Weir, and devoured five texts on quantum physics.

When I called recently, my dad said he was too busy to talk. “We have a dying project going on here,” he said, then paused awkwardly. “Not that kind. We dye table napkins different colors. I'll call you back later.”

Just to clarify, my dad never drank or smoked, but worked his ass off. He worked for AT&T for over 30 years and is glad he cheated the system, having been happily retired longer than he worked. If you're looking for the secret to longevity, you probably won't find it here. A New York Times essay on “super-agers” found no link between diet, exercise and resistance to age-related decline. Staying active and having strong social relationships may be part of the equation, but it seems to come down to genetics and a “lucky disposition,” whatever that may be.

When my father was born in 1923, the life expectancy of an American male was 56.1 years. Today, that number is 73.5 years. As I write this, I am 73.2 years old. The good news is that I may have won the genetic lottery, too. Time will tell. The downside is that, based on my Portsmouth property tax bill, I will never retire.

The hardest part of the aging process, we're learning, is money. We thought selling the family home was the key to financial security. We didn't expect that the monthly rent at a corporate assisted living facility would increase by more than 60% in five years. We were surprised when an oral surgeon insisted my father pay $11,000 up front for each procedure. When my father moved to Portsmouth last year, a branch bank in town refused to accept his new address unless he showed up in person to prove his identity. Even though he's been out of the military for nearly 80 years, my father still hasn't received a veteran's pension. I think he's entitled to it.

The world out there is pretty scary at any age. Scammers are lurking around every corner waiting to rip off the elderly. They pose as government officials, grandchildren in need, fake lottery agents, computer technicians, or even Medicare consultants. So far, we have only been victims of a scam once and we got away unscathed.

But there are still angels. In the 20th century, I did a little work for Patricia Ramsey, then-owner of Edgewood Center. It was decades ago, but last year I called her and asked for advice.

“We have a vacancy at the inn,” she told me. “It's a small room. Would your father like to see it?”

Pat offered to pick up my father and drive him to Portsmouth to look at the room. I went in one day and he was reading a book on quantum physics,” she says.

Dad liked the room but asked for the TV to be removed. He's too busy to watch TV. Almost a year later, he loves this cozy and affordable facility. He praises the staff and loves the food. He gets three home-cooked keto-friendly meals daily. He can see the kitchen from his door. Life is beautiful.

As I was finishing this article, the phone rang. “I've just come from the doctor,” Dad reported, obviously optimistic. “The doctor just said: − Everything looks good. See you in a year!”

J. Dennis Robinson is the author of over a dozen books and 3,000 published articles. His most recent works are Portsmouth Time Machine (with illustrator Robert Squier), a lavishly illustrated hardback history of New Castle Island, and1623: Pilgrims, politics, dreams and the founding of New Hampshire.

Anna Harden

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