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Home > Research Articles > Life in the Age of Old, Old Age

New York Times

Monday, February 23, 2004

By SUSAN DOMINUS Published: February 22, 2004

Nov. 22 was an odd date for celebrating the birthdays of the four Blaylock sisters, given that none of them were born on that day, or even in that month. But Joe Watts, the son of the oldest sister, felt the celebration should take place before the Iowa winter weather inconvenienced guests flying in from out of town, and besides, his mother, Audry, was turning 100 -- why wait? ''This is a very expensive party,'' Joe, who is 63, reminded her every so often in the weeks leading up to the event. ''So you better not die before this thing happens.''

Audry responded to her son's teasing with an easy irreverence, a kind of humor she developed only very late in life, in the two decades since she turned 80 -- practically another adulthood in which to try on a new self. ''Joe's always saying, 'Now, Mother, that suit we bought for the party was so expensive, I think we're going to bury you in it,''' she said the day of the celebration, as she finished getting dressed in her studio apartment. Clutching a railing in her bathroom, she peered into the mirror, evaluating the elegant, slightly stooped woman she saw there, checking the placement of a small gold pin on her lapel. ''So I said to him: 'I don't know, Joe. I wouldn't be so sure about who's going to bury whom.'''

With the help of a walker, Audry made her way down the long hallway of her retirement community, heading toward the lobby, where she greeted the two sisters who had already arrived. Charlotte, who would turn 98 in February, had been driven up that morning from a city two hours away, and Barbara -- on the brink of 83, she was still called the baby -- came from her home nearby. Florence, who would be turning 90, had flown up from Las Vegas and arrived a few moments later. Audry rushed over to greet her, but in the excitement the legs of her walker interlocked with those of Florence's, blocking their embrace. The two stood there, momentarily stymied, until an observant guest stepped in to disentangle them.

As the four sisters waited for Joe and his friends to finish decorating the dining room of the retirement home, they sat down to talk, a bit self-conscious as a photographer the family hired for the event started snapping shots of them. ''Oh, someone would take a picture just as I've got my mouth open,'' Charlotte said.

''Naturally!'' said Barbara, who gave Charlotte a high-five, and the two burst into laughter, their shoulders shaking nearly in unison.

Barbara and Charlotte have always been the more reckless sisters, the ones who married too early or too late, the ones who still collapse into giggles that leave them breathless and wiping their eyes. For the most part, Audry and Florence, whose prim bearings are remarkably similar, always were -- still are -- more serious, sharing a passion for books and an interest in current events. What all four have in common: perfect hearing and all of their own teeth. For their age group, the sisters are practically bionic.

As they caught up, the four women fell easily into the same roles that have probably characterized their relationships since President Harding held office. Eyeing Charlotte's walker, Florence and Audry asked their sister why she chose her particular model, which doesn't have a convenient built-in seat, as theirs do. Charlotte said she liked her walker just fine, thank you, and she wasn't going to buy another; she already had two. ''But with this kind, you can put stuff in the seat,'' Audry persisted. ''Yes, I see the good points,'' Charlotte replied, now impatient. ''I realize that.'' Living to 98, it appears, does not provide immunity from the ministrations of a know-it-all older sister. ''She's still telling us what to do!'' Barbara exclaimed, setting herself and Charlotte off into another round of shoulder-shaking laughter.

In the annals of human longevity, the Blaylock sisters represent a happy aberration, an anomaly so rare that they have donated blood for the sake of genetic research. They have all sailed past the current life expectancy of 79 for women in the United States, showing little serious wear along the way. The three sisters over 85 have beaten the unnervingly high odds of developing Alzheimer's (50-50 for people that age and older), and all four have survived bouts with at least one of the most common causes of death for women -- heart disease, cancer and stroke. It's tempting to say that the sisters look young for their ages, but in Audry's case, at least, there isn't much basis for comparison: there are fewer than 70,000 centenarians in the United States.