Longevity Lessons from my 100-year-old Grandpa

A couple of years ago, I discovered Blue Zones - an organization that has mapped out geographic locations around the world with the healthiest, longest-living populations. Its aim is to inspire individuals and communities to upgrade lifestyle choices and physical environment to encourage living better, longer. 

What they uncovered is not far off from what I've learned over the years about wellness and taking care of the physical body holistically. Move naturally throughout the day, don't overfill your stomach with food and eat mostly plants, find purpose in your life, prioritize rest, belong to a community of people who have similar healthy habits, and stay connected with loved ones.

I didn't realize it, but I had my very own Blue Zone inspiration right under my nose my entire life. My Grandpa Stan, who recently turned 100-years-old. As a male, World War II veteran as a combat medic, and solo centenarian in his community - this a monumental accomplishment.

Growing up, Grandpa has directly and indirectly taught me about longevity and the human spirit. And with the work that I do with Natalie Jackson Wellness, I started to accumulate those precious moments. Each paragraph below is a snap shot of memorable stories that have a meaningful lessons inside. 


Hold hands and take the stairs

As a WWII veteran in the Army, Grandpa became very involved with his 90th Infantry Division reunions that gathered annually in various location around the US. I had the honor of attending many of these patriotic weekends starting from my teens into my early thirties. One year, he and I flew from Chicago to Fort Worth/Dallas. Walking through the airport, he held my hand and smiled. Kissing, hugging, hand holding, tickling were normal interactions but in displaying this one in public made me feel safe and loved. Seeing his WWII hat, people would come up to him saying, "Thank you for your service" and wanting to shake his hand. I would beam with pride and happy tears. As we continued to walk through the airport, the choice between the escalator and stairs would present itself. "Grandpa, which do you want to take?" I asked. With no hesitation, he replied, "Let's take the stairs, honey." He was 93 at the time with no walker or cane.


Park in the back

Whenever I did errands with grandpa, he would always park the car in the back to get in extra steps and a short run. As soon as we got out of the car, he would give me this look with a little smirk and challenge me to race to the front door. Being a very fast kid, I still have no memories of ever winning. 


After dinner walks

I only lived 30 minutes from my Grandparents house, so visiting on the weekends and non-holiday gatherings for meals were normal. After dinner I knew Grandpa would want one of his favorite ice cream flavors. Either butter pecan or pralines and cream. On the occasion he was out he wouldn't get in the car to go the 1 mile to buy more. He would put on his sneakers and ask who wanted to walk with him. Looking back, I never felt lethargic or heavy after meals there because we often moved our bodies to help digestion.


Just one or two drinks

"Who would like a gin and tonic?" Being too young to drink I observed a few things about Grandpa when he drank alcohol. 1. He usually took his sweet time making a cocktail. My aunts and sisters would playfully yell to him in the kitchen to question what's taking so long? I would run back there finding him elbows up squeezing every last drop out of each lime. 2. I rarely saw him have more than 2 drinks, but he did drink on most occasions. 3. He had a specific drink on different days of the week. One day was pizza and beer, one was salmon and wine, one was martini day, another he had scotch and soda. 4. Grandpa always drank while eating food. Some of his favorite snacks before a dinner meal were (and still are) pistachios, popcorn, shrimp cocktail, and crunchy party mixes.


Keep your balance

Not only was Grandpa a walker and runner but he also loved playing little games with me. In and out of the living room and kitchen watching TV and helping prepare meals (my Grandma Grace was an exceptional Sicilian cook), Grandpa would ask me if I could squat down on one knee and get back up. Confused at first, I would ask him to demonstrate. He balanced on one foot, established his balance, bent all the way down, and would rise back up on the same leg. In the fitness world, these are known as pistol squats. I couldn't do it at first but he kept encouraging me to practice. Eventually, I got it and still love doing them to this day. 

He also had me doing kitchen counter arm dips (while family was cooking) and a balancing game. For this one, we each had one foot touching the others, holding hands, while trying to knock the other person off balance. Like running, I never won, and usually ended up on my back giggling while he tickled me saying, "How did you get down?!" 


Let's dance and sing

My grandparents were exceptional dancers. Everything paused around them when they held each other. Whenever the opportunity presented itself at a holiday gathering, party, or one of his WWII reunions, I never missed a chance to dance with him. Grandpa usually hummed along to the song as he gently guided me to the next move or step. I would just smile and stare at him in amazement the whole time. 

He also loves to sing and is infamous for singing God Bless America acapella - he even sang at his 100th birthday party. Singing karaokee was a highlight and we were often first at his reunions to get the party started. Frank Sinatra is one of his favorites.


Get on the ground and get back up

Usually as adults get older, you find them less and less on the ground (on purpose). Grandpa would get on the ground to put on shoes, roll around on the carpet wrestling, bend down on one knee and easily get back up, fix something in the house or under the car. And the guy, to this day, still crosses his legs and sits very casually in chairs. And although he needs a walked these days, he never looks bound to a chair.


Sailboat visit

In the years my partner, Lucas, and I lived on our sailboat on Lake Superior, Grandpa was able to visit once. Walking down the dock he held my hand and approaching the cockpit, we all thought he wouldn't want to hurdle into a 30 foot boat. But he did. With a helping hand, he stepped right in, always moving a bit quicker for everyone's readiness, and had no problem maintaining his balance as the boat rocked back and forth. 


Exercise in bed

My grandparents were world travelers. They particularly loved Europe and Alaska. I was fortunate enough to road trip with them a few times. One trip led us to Door County, Wisconsin where we shared a hotel room with separate beds. I usually woke up the same time he did (I've always been an early riser) and watch him do his calisthenics in bed, in his matching top and bottom stripped pajamas, before putting on his glasses or hearing aids. Leg raises, arm circles, bicycles. He would kick up his breathing and become just a pinch red in the face. As a 12-year-old I would think, "What his he doing?" Knowing what I know now about taking care of the body, it all makes sense.


Keep getting outside

Grandpa knew that I worked outside a lot as an outdoor instructor and wilderness leader with youth. He would always tell me, "Keep getting our youth outside." With clenched fists, closed eyes, and sincerity in his voice. It gave me pride and fuel knowing one of my elders supported and understood what I was doing was important.


Shared war stories

I know Grandpa Stan as a speaker and presenter. He's not shy or over bearing but has a soft command of attention in a room. He gave talks at Chicago universities and schools to share his experience from the start of WWII, his participation in the invasion of Europe, Normandy D+2 as a combat aid and medic runner, through all the major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. Although the material was heavy and intense, he somehow made the crowd laugh and knew how to connect with people about this important chapter of our nations history. I could tell over time, it was helpful for his mental health and spirit to not keep those stories inside. 


Don't eat too much

Food. Eating. Grandpa Stan's favorite. The guy has always had an appetite and strong metabolism. "Grace, when will dinner be ready?" He was patient but had a growling tummy that was ready to sit at the table but didn't often socialize in the beginning of a meal so he could focus on eating. He stressed to me to not overeat, eat good food and not snack in excess before a meal. He also still gets going about late night food commercials being such a detrimental part of society.


Clean your mouth

After the war, he went to work in a dental laboratory where I'm guessing he learned more about how to care for your teeth and overall oral health. He was devoted to baking soda tooth pasts, Listerine mouth wash, and flossing. To this day, he has all his teeth, very few cavities, and has a beautiful smile. 


Don't fall asleep and keep moving

"Keep moving the body and sleep less during the day and more at night." His drive to stay active has been consistent throughout his life. Even when I ask my mom, who is almost 70-years-old, she says she can remember as a 10-year-old girl her dad going for a run down the block and the neighbors being confused about what he was doing and why. Grandpa stressed daily exercise and "working the heart."


The joy of travel

I could tell Grandpa loved to be home, adored his wife, raising his 4 kids, and taking care of his yard and garden, but he and my grandma had a certain happiness that came out when they travelled. It was like they came alive even more and had a refreshed energy about them. They took each of my older sisters on road trips up to Alaska and Canada in a camper for 4 weeks. I was next to take a cruise from Seattle to Alaska but it was cancelled because my grandma started getting sick. Travel in my eyes was normalized from a young age, via car, camper, plane, boat and has heavily influenced how I live and experience the world.


Reading jokes at dinner

After a holiday dinner, Grandpa Stan would make my younger cousin and I read jokes (written by other grade school kids) cut out from the local newspaper. Standing next to him at the head of the table, we would take turns reading the set up and punch line to entertain our family, as they finished up a divine homemade meal by my Grandma Grace. Most were silly and not the funniest jokes you’ve ever heard, but we continued knowing he wanted us to follow through. “Ohhhh, haha, yaa, I get it.” Looking back, it was his love of humor, simple pleasures, being together, practicing speaking in front of a group, and reading.


Love of family

Dear Grandpa Stan,

Happy, happy 100th birthday! I dedicate this post to you.

Thank you for your service and sacrifice for our country during WWII and thank you for being such a positive and loving influence in my life since I was a little girl to now.

To move my body, have fun playing outside, eat good food, make jokes and laugh, prioritize sleep, enjoy drinks in moderation (and always add extra lime), take care of my body, get out and travel, share life experiences, and keep family close. 

To celebrate you brings me so much joy. It is my hope that I can honor your continued legacy in how I live my life based on the wisdom you passed down to me. I hold you close in my heart and can't wait to visit again soon to sip on white wine and munch on a small plate of pistachios and popcorn. 


With all my love.

Your granddaughter,