Since the 1950s, the number of centenarians has more than doubled every decade—and now one in three babies born in the UK is expected to reach their 100th year. Amanda Riley-Jones asks three such people to share their advice for a long and happy life.
Gordon Browne, Kent
100 on November 30, 2016
Gordon's secret is to "Adapt and try new things"
"My attitude has always been to make the best of what you’ve got," declares Gordon Browne, who lives in a 15th-century Wealden house that’s been in the family for 100 years. "Stay positive and do your best to keep going!"
Gordon still cooks his own meals and his retired sons visit frequently. He uses a trolley or two sticks to get about ("I had a hip replacement at 94, but I won’t have the other one done unless it gets too bad"), but he’s sharp as a pin and smartly turned out. No wonder some of his friends still call him "Major."
Gordon was born in Bangalore, India. Growing up in an army family, he and his two older sisters became used to moving around. "It’s vital to adapt, not try to resist change," he explains. "I’ve always been anxious to do things that are new."
"Those who’ve gone don’t want you to be miserable. You’ve got to carry on"
At British boarding school, Gordon played rugger, athletics, hockey and squash, and he was still playing tennis until he was 80. He only "puffed at cigarettes occasionally" as a youngster and never drank much. Longevity seems to be in his genes. "My father died in his mid-seventies and my mother was 92," he remembers. "My grandparents lived until their eighties—ancient for those days!"
After Sandhurst, Gordon joined the army as an officer and married his teenage sweetheart two days after war was declared. He and Molly had four sons—Richard, Robin, Nicholas and Julian—and were married 61 years. "Throughout my life, my family has given me enormous pleasure," he says.
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Of his career, he says, "I’ve been extremely lucky, except during the war, to do things that have interested me deeply." He became a major by the age of 26 and recalls, "You’re posted somewhere you don’t know a soul and you have to get on with it. Good pressure spurs you on."
While fighting the Japanese in India, he caught a glimpse of an enemy helmet in some bushes. "I’m still alive because I have very quick reactions. I shouted ‘Japs!’ and dived into the undergrowth, as did my men. A grenade exploded where I’d been standing."
Gordon left the army in 1950 and joined MI5 the same year, in the early days of the Cold War. "I was involved in very interesting work, both at home and abroad—including meetings with Winston Churchill and President Eisenhower when helping to oversee the security for the Three-Power Conference at Bermuda in 1953."
Gordon retired in 1976, having been awarded a CBE. But he’s stayed on the go, volunteering for his church, successfully campaigning against the development of a local airfield and looking after his Grade II-listed home ("Gardening is a good contribution to a long life"). He enjoys keeping up with current affairs, saying, "Taking an intelligent interest in life keeps one on the ball. People who learn things and get involved are going to enjoy life more than someone who spends all their time watching TV."
Inevitably, Gordon has outlived many loved ones, including his son Nicholas and beloved wife Molly. "It’s difficult to overcome and you never forget, but those who’ve gone don’t want you to be miserable," he says. "You’ve got to put it behind you and carry on."
He plans to celebrate his birthday surrounded by family, including 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. "I’m lucky to still be here. My family all tell me to keep going!"
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Joan Pettman, West Sussex
100 on August 1, 2016
Joan's secret is to "Accept your fate and make the most of it"
"I don’t feel a hundred," laughs Joan Pettman, who’s chatting in her garden-facing room at Church Farm Care Home near Chichester. "I had a birthday do in a local hall and thought to myself, Who is this 100-year-old?"
"I just woke up one day and I was old. Sometimes it gives me a jolt. It’s important to keep up standards and look decent. I get my hair done once a week and I’m going to get my teeth whitened," adds Joan, who’s beautifully made up and coiffured.
She was driving until she was 98 and is full of praise for the surgeons who replaced both hips and one ankle. "I was hobbling with arthritis and they made me into a bionic woman!" smiles Joan. She still gets around using a wheeled frame.
"I had a birthday do and thought to myself, Who is this 100-year-old?"
Joan and her younger sister Bernice grew up in Margate, Kent. After a brief stint as an apprentice hairdresser, 21-year-old Joan married her husband Tom and moved
to London. At five-foot-nine, she landed a job modelling clothes at Bourne and Hollingsworth department store in Oxford Street. She remembers one particularly beautiful long scarlet gown.
When war broke out, Joan recalls, "An incendiary bomb dropped on our terrace of houses. But I wasn’t afraid. I’ve always been able to take things in my stride."
Joan as a young woman. "It’s important to keep up standards and look decent"
While Tom was abroad with the navy, Joan spent much of the war working in a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) canteen. "I was worried about doing the books and figures. But the war taught us how to deal with things and, of course, it’s good to learn something new."
Later, Joan was busy running the family home and raising children Michael, Richard and Penny, who are now 69, 67 and 57 respectively.
"I used to like throwing big parties. All my life I’ve found people so interesting. It’s essential to connect with others and have good friends," she says.
Joan’s husband, who was a company director, died four days after their 75th wedding anniversary. Framed family photographs fill her room and she talks joyfully of the youngsters in the family.
"Grandchildren are such a pleasure and keep you going. I enjoy talking to them about new things and we have a special bond."
So what’s the secret to Joan’s longevity? "I don’t think I’ve done anything special," she replies. "I only smoked a little during the war. I went without sugar during rationing and haven’t had any since. Oh, and my friend and I walked four miles every day until I was 75!"
"I was initially upset when I had to leave my home and come here," she admits. "But I was soon resigned to it. If I were to give advice, I’d say always accept your fate and make the most of it."
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Marjorie Hodnett, Devon
102 on April 1, 2016
Marjorie's secret is to "Do all the good you can, for as long as you can"
"I’ve always been interested in eating healthily and I was teetotal until I was 50—but genes must have something to do with it. I’m the sixth centenarian in our family!" says Marjorie, who was born in Harlesden, London, in 1914. "My great-aunt and two cousins from each side of the family lived for over a century. My mother lived to 94 and my father to 82, even though he contracted illnesses as a soldier. And his five sisters were all ninety-plus!"
After her father was called up, Marjorie, her mother and older brother Gilbert moved in with an aunt. When her mother patriotically returned to work, little Marjorie spent some days with another aunt. Aged four, she spent one term at school in Folkestone, staying with a third aunt.
"Look forward with hope, not back with regret"
"Travelling and experiencing change helped me to become independent. And I’ve always been able to see the best side of things!" laughs Marjorie, who’s visited every month by her niece.
Marjorie was raised a Wesleyan Methodist—with a strong social conscience. "Doing good is good for the soul and helps keep you out of mischief," she smiles, before quoting the teaching attributed to founder John Wesley: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you can." When she was widowed for the second time at 48, she found great support in her church.
Marjorie with her mother and brother in 1917
Marjorie was a devoted teacher—indeed, a former pupil comes in to do her hair. Other passions included country dancing and painting. At 50, she took seven months’ leave to sail to New Zealand. She advises, "Stay busy and never turn down an opportunity!"
Marjorie was also President of Sidbury Women’s Institute, volunteered with Meals on Wheels and led a choir until she was 95. She moved into Sidmouth’s Abbeyfield Court sheltered accommodation in 2008 and still enjoys helping others—by helping teach perspective in the weekly drawing classes and entertaining other residents by "playing DJ" in the lounge.
This year she published a book of her poetry to help raise money to bring Abbeyfield Court’s garden back to life. Marjorie, who took up writing poetry when she joined the WI, has sold 272 copies of A Sideways Glance at Life Around Sidmouth, and raised over £1,000. Anything inspires her to pick up a pen, from the sea in winter to overweight tourists—and even the car-park attendant!
Her final piece of advice for a long, happy life is: "Look forward with hope, not back with regret. I hope I’ll be here to see the garden restored. It will be a good legacy."
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