For her 118th birthday on Friday, Sister André, one of the oldest women in the world, wants to “die soon”. At her retirement home in the south of France, she always leaves her door open in case anyone wants to pass a head on.
In her room: a single bed, a Virgin and a radio, which she hasn’t listened to for months. The advance of the world worries him too much. She usually waits, sitting on her wheelchair, her head bowed. His blinded eyes are closed. She thinks, she prays, she dozes off: we don’t really know.
Sister André, delicate face, alert voice, abysmal memory, always appears in her nun’s clothes, a blue headscarf over her hair. His day starts early. “They pick me up at seven o’clock in the morning and put me at the table. Then we take her to the chapel where Lucile Randon, who became Sister André when she was 40, never misses the morning service.
“It’s awful not being able to do something alone,” annoys this lady who worked until the late 1970s and, at 100, was still looking after retirees younger than her. But she has retained what is most dear to her, the envy of others. “I’m happy when people come to keep me company, like David. David, he’s charming, do you know him? ‘ she says mischievously, her hand tied to her confidant’s.
David Tavella, animator at this retirement home in Toulon on the shores of the Mediterranean, has also become his press officer, besieged by requests from journalists from all over the world, letters and boxes of chocolates. Emmanuel Macron, the 18th president, sent the famous old lady handwritten wishes for 2022, ending with a “very respectful” circumstance.
Because Lucile Randon, born on February 11, 1904 in Alès (Gard), is the dean of the French but also European population, and the vice-dean of the world, behind the Japanese Kane Tanaka, 119 years old.
Up to 122 years old
We probably will. For in these records it has already happened that even older people have come to shake up the data of the scientific basis IDL (International Database on Longevity) by making themselves known to the Guinness Book†
When it comes to life expectancy, Japan or the “blue zones” are often referred to, these isolated regions of Sardinia, Greece or Costa Rica that have a high number of centenarians. France less.
Yet it is here, in Provence, the land of light and olive trees, that Jeanne Calment lived, the man who lived the longest in the history of mankind and whose marital status could be valid. She died in Arles in 1997 at the age of 122.
Also in the south of France lives André Boite, the presumed new dean of French men and women, one of the rare men in the world of “supercentenarians”, ie the milestone of 110 years passed. At the age of 111, he still lives at home in Nice, likes to wear his three-piece suit, but prefers to stay away from journalists.
According to the French Statistical Institute (Insee), there are now a total of some 30,000 centenarians in France and about forty are over 110 years old. According to UN projections, there were half a million centenarians worldwide in 2015, and there could be 25 million by 2100. But how do these people live their longevity?
“She goes through everything”
When Hermine Saubion is reminded that she is 110 years old, she replies: “It’s old, it’s not young, I hold on”. The supercentenarian has just woken up from a nap in her wheelchair at the entrance to the restaurant of her retirement home in Banon, a village nestled in the middle of the oak and pine-dotted hills of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
Her beautiful face comes to life, a broad smile, her eyes stare intently at her interlocutor. She has no health problems but physical limitations and severe deafness which isolates her. She understands only fragments of sentences. But she is not giving up on life in the society here where she has lived for two years. When Annick, another boarder, comes by, she calls out to her: ‘Go ahead, sit down! †
“If she stays alone in one place for too long, she won’t yell after she doesn’t agree,” confirms Julien Fregni, the host.
For this Marseillaise, who knew a great love before devoting herself to her widowed mother, longevity was never a goal, so it happened. As for his sister Emilienne, 102 years old, the other centenary of the accommodation for the elderly and dependents (Ehpad).
Sister André also has no health problems apart from muscle and joint stiffness related to her immobility and receives very few daily treatments, which is undoubtedly “one of her secrets to longevity,” reports her doctor Geneviève Haggai-Driguez.
She survived the Covid-19 with ease which made her just a little tired. “She goes through everything”, “takes it over in an absolutely incredible way”, and “when we talk to her she says, ‘oh, anyway, I had the Spanish flu'”.
Specialists have also found that centenarians born before the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic were more resistant to Covid than those born after.
Not far away, in Valréas, at the foot of the Barronies of Provence, lives Aline Blain, a 110-year-old former teacher. Authoritarian and gentle at the same time, the “star” of her Ehpad likes to browse through the weekly Paris match† “The most important thing for me is my daughter’s visit, the little ones,” she says. Her 76-year-old daughter Monique watches over her almost daily.
When they show resistance, these people of extreme age have seen many of their loved ones disappear, they no longer have anyone with whom they can share the memory of their life. Aline Blain would like to “better we ignore (her) age”: “I don’t like being Dean of the Vaucluse, at least I’m not old anymore,” she says.
Death, they talk about it, without taboo, it is their daily life. “We are waiting,” said Hermine, “we are waiting for the end, death, it will happen. Sister André feels ready too. “All day alone with your pain, it is no fun”, she said. But “the good God does not hear me, he must be deaf”.
Passions and coquetry
Science has still failed to unravel the secret of this longevity. “We have no certainty other than assumptions. Longevity goes hand in hand with economic wealth, democracy or even social democracies, nutritional factors with two main diets: the Japanese (fish, vegetables) and the Mediterranean diet”, sums up Jean-Marie Robine, demographer and gerontologist.
But “longevity is worth nothing without the right conditions,” he adds. There are also criteria specific to the person, genes, or lack of genes associated with risk factors.
“Jeanne Calment ticked all the boxes for longevity, she had an impeccable lifestyle. She started smoking at 25, but one small cigarillo a day and drank a finger of port in the evenings. She was a lady who missed excesses,” says Catherine Levraud, head of the geriatrics center at the Arles Hospital Center.
“Faced with the extreme living conditions they experience, the elderly show impressive resilience and we know that optimism is related to mechanisms of the immune system,” notes Daniela S. Jopp, professor of psychology of aging at the University of Lausanne and at the Swiss Research Center LIVES.
In her research on German and American centenarians, the researcher noted common characteristics: they are outgoing, charismatic, love social interactions, have passions, are able to maintain purpose in life and develop strategies.
She might forget one, coquetry: Hermine demands pretty haircuts like her two little buns, “the devil’s horns,” she jokes. And Aline specifically asks for matching dresses and cardigans. Because, as Sister André says, the most important thing in life is to “share a great love and not to compromise on anyone’s needs”.