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Writer says centenarians ‘see whole arc of life’

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Neenah Ellis, a producer at National Public Radio, wanted to write a book about centenarians.

This was after she had done a series for public radio about the lives of a number of people who had reached the age of 100 and were willing to talk about it.

She felt strongly the need to put her own personal touch on it. During a phone conversation from her home in Maryland, she said she "insisted" when she did the radio series that they leave her voice on the tape so listeners would know the centenarians were talking to someone.

"Otherwise, they would become generic old people. When I wrote the book, my editor insisted on the same thing."

Still, if she had it to do over again, Ellis said she would interview twice as many centenarians — "another 20 would have been amazing!" Nevertheless, she was surprised and pleased at what she found. "The lack of crankiness was a happy discovery for me. They were mostly so cheerful and optimistic. Learning to live life well was a big part of it for me. All those cliches — 'take each day, enjoy the people around you, take time for the important things' — they're all true!"

Ellis hopes that readers will get a desire "to spend more time with older people. Especially that's true of younger people. They need that in their lives, and we need that in our lives."

She also hopes that people will learn not to patronize older people, the common tendency to "talk down" to them as if they were children, to tell them how "cute" they are.

Often self-deprecating about her interviewing skills, Ellis claims she was "so bad at it in the beginning — and as I got better, I knew I would have to spend more time." She found many who responded well if she spoke slowly and loudly enough.

"It took me forever to slow down. But at the beginning of every interview, I'd ask if they could see my face from where I was sitting. Margaret Rawson faked her blindness so well I didn't know until the third time I talked to her that she couldn't see me. They need to see your mouth. I also asked them if they could hear better out of one ear than another. You have to be really sit close to them. Many of the women wanted to hold my hand the whole time. I had to get used to that close personal space. Just calm your heartbeat and relax."

Even so, Ellis often thought she had "lost control" of her interviews and needed help.

Fortunately, she found many answers to her questions in the book "A General Theory of Love." She talked to Thomas Lewis, one of the psychiatrists who wrote it, and he explained the theory of "limbic resonance," suggesting that one person can get into another person's brain.

She decided that was happening to her, mostly because the centenarians were "so plugged in — good at making human connections quickly. They listen, they're non-judgmental, and there comes a moment when everything flows. That was happening to me over and over again."

Ellis also read books about "the power of the touch of the elderly. Older people often get cut off when they lose spouses and close friends. They are cut off from intimacy, which everyone needs. So when someone, like me, comes along who offers intimacy, they jump at that."

Although the U.S. Census estimates there are 50,000 people who are 100 years or older, the National Institute of Health estimates 70,000. "My gut tells me it's higher," says Ellis. "Everyone I meet knows someone who is 100 years old — Senator Strom Thurmond for example — and 80 percent of them are women. At any rate, the prediction is that by 2050 there will be a million centenarians."

Ellis thinks it possible that many centenarians "can see the whole arc of life. When you ask them what benefit they see in living this long, they're not sure there is one. Some said they had perspective they were not even aware of. Much of this is still a mystery to me. But I feel I had an experience I'm going to draw from for years and years."

The satisfaction from writing her first book was terrific, she said, partly "because writing for radio is frustrating. You have to know a lot more than you get to write. My stories for radio had to be 600 words. I thought it would make me crazy by the end.

"So I was happy to sit down and think about this and do what I wanted to do with it — in a book. It was delicious to get to do it! Yet, public radio is basically who I am. I like the chance to do both."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com