Clementina Ripplinger, 101, sits in a chair in her room at Qu’Appelle House Special Care Home in Regina.
On a table in front of her sits a toy slot machine. Her son, Nick Ripplinger, dropped some coins in, and now she has to try to win them back.
Nursing researcher Heather Nelson sits down on the seat of Clementina’s walker and pulls off her surgical mask so it is hanging off one ear. She scoots the walker close and leans towards Clementina so she can hear.
“I heard a rumour about you that you went to the casino in a cab,” Heather said, putting her mask back on.
Clementina laughs and looks down.
Local, independent, in-depth.
Our Prairie stories.
“They didn’t know where you were. Is that true?”
Clementina shrugs with one shoulder. “Could be.”
“You told them your son was going to meet you there. But he wasn’t.”
Clementina shakes her head and looks at Nick, who is sitting on her bed. She gives him a devious smile.
“Were you being sneaky,” Heather asks, laughing. “They had to go hunting for you. You’re like a teenager.”
“You can’t act like a teenager,” said Clementina. “You’ve got to act your age.”
“That’s no fun,” said Heather. “What do you think 100-year-olds should act like?”
Clementina bows her head and puts her hands together like she’s praying to imply saint-like behaviour.
Heather, a nursing instructor at the University of Regina and Saskatchewan Polytechnic, is visiting Clementina as part of a study on what brings 100-year-olds joy. She is also curious about their thoughts and plans for the future.
When she and her research team, which includes three other Saskatchewan Polytechnic nurses, Paula Mayer, Susan Page, and Beverlee Ziefflie, looked at past research on 100-year-olds, they couldn’t find anything on centenarian joy or their future outlooks.
“I think that’s an area of research that we can really add value to,” said Heather.
On the first day of the study, the researchers met on the 11th floor of Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Regina Campus, which overlooks the open Prairie on the city’s outskirts.
“I am hoping to see older adults who are not waiting to die,” said Susan. She wants to meet centenarians in the study who feel they still have time to do some of the things they want to do.
Occasionally, such centenarians make the news, like the former mayor of Mississauga, Hazel McCallion, who was involved in local politics until her death this year at 101.
Last year, she had been reappointed for a three-year term on the Greater Toronto Airports Authority board of directors.
A busy life kept her moving forward.
“I want to live life to the fullest until my very last day on earth,” she once told the National Post.
When she turned 100 in 2021, Hazel said she felt no different than she had the day before.
“I feel great,” she told CTV. “You just have to take every day, each day by day. I get up in the morning and get up with a positive attitude, which I think is a lot.”
Another centenarian of note is Fauja Singh, a British man who, at 100, finished Toronto’s waterfront marathon in 2011, making him the oldest person to run such a distance. He is still alive today.
There is also Capt. Tom Moore, a veteran. He raised millions of dollars for the British healthcare system early in the pandemic by walking 100 lengths of his garden. He was later knighted by the Queen at the age of 100.
Closer to home, on the Canadian Prairie, there are 100-year-olds who continue to work on their golf game.
Heather herself would like to live to 100. And if you know her, it seems possible.
She is a literal poster child for good health. While driving around Regina, you can see her on billboards advertising a local karate dojo.
She is a third-degree black belt who competed internationally.
In her 40s, she took up playing tennis recreationally despite an occasional frozen shoulder, a condition where the connective tissue enclosing the joint thickens and tightens.
She detests fast food and is a non-smoker.
Heather is interested in studying seniors in hopes that her work will inspire her students, who can be scared to interact with patients of advanced age.
“They’ve never spoken to an older adult that was outside their family, so they didn’t know what to say,” she said. “They just assumed they couldn’t hear them or couldn’t understand.”
About one-third of older adults between 65 and 74 have hearing loss, and nearly half of those over 75 have hearing difficulty.
Many factors can contribute to hearing loss, like high blood pressure, diabetes, certain medications and long-term exposure to loud noises.
Like several seniors the researchers spoke with, Clementina is hard of hearing.
During the interview, her son, who sat beside her, sometimes had to lean close to her ear to repeat some of the research questions asked by Susan Page, one of the Saskatchewan Polytechnic team members.
Betty Peterson, another centenarian who was also part of the study and lived at Qu’Appelle House with Clementina, preferred Heather write down some hard-to-hear questions for her to read on a whiteboard.
The recreation facilitator used a microphone during a bingo game played by Clementina and Betty to help them hear the numbers.
Recreational opportunities in assisted living homes
In addition to Qu’Appelle House, the study included centenarians at Harbour Landing Village and College Park II in Regina.
All three homes had a wide array of activities for residents, like movie nights, field trips and exercise classes.
The Rumpus Room in the basement of Harbour Landing Village has a big screen TV between a wall of books and puzzles. In the back is a pool table.
Qu’Appelle House hosts a daily afternoon tea for residents.
And College Park II has a Nintendo Wii game console in its Movie Theatre room for residents to play virtual golf, curling or bowling. There is also a large indoor pool for aquacise.
These Regina senior homes are like resorts without the beach.
Not having a home of one’s own
At Qu’Appelle House, Clementina’s small room is similar to one in a university dormitory. There is a bed, a chair and a dresser.
Centenarian Joyce Duncan’s private room has a bedroom and a living room at Harbour Village Landing.
After a stroke, Joyce needed assisted living and finds it difficult not to have her home anymore.
“It is nothing against this place because they are really good,” said Joyce.
Every morning the staff helps her wash and put on clothes.
“I eat a good breakfast,” said Joyce. “Poached eggs, cornflakes and coffee.”
Over at Qu’Appelle House, Betty, who is 101, says there is something different every day.
“Today, it was my bath day,” she said. “So right after breakfast, (they) woosh me into the bathtub and do my hair.”
Christine Adams, another resident at Qu’Appelle House, said she would love to be able to do the activities she enjoyed when she was younger, like playing ball and tennis. Now she says there is nothing to do.
“If I could flip the age back, I would,” said the 102-year-old.
Betty is more positive.
“What’s there really to complain about? There’s good food, nice people.” She shrugs.
Keeping busy at 100
Betty entertains herself by playing cards.
“Cheating, sometimes,” she says with a laugh. “That’s grand fun.”
Joyce writes poems and stories, which she submits to literary magazines and writing contests.
Even at 100, she tries to perfect her craft and stays current on industry trends by reading Writer’s Digest.
“(The publishers) like my stories, but they want more action,” she said.
Joyce can’t type like she used to, so she dictates her work to her daughter.
On the wall of Joyce’s living room hangs a framed poem she wrote about the Second World War; a copy is in the archives of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
How the Second World War impacted who the centenarians are today
During the war, Joyce worked on an assembly line in Ajax, Ontario, making caps and detonators. She worked with trinitrotoluene, more commonly known as TNT, an explosive material that can turn people’s skin yellow.
Women who worked in these factories were sometimes called “canary girls” because of this poisoning.
Other side effects included nausea, constipation, and dizziness. In some cases, exposure to trinitrotoluene could cause anemia and jaundice.
When Joyce’s skin turned yellow, she changed jobs and began working on the Lancaster bomber.
“That was going to end the war,” said Joyce about the aircraft.
The war is why she values democracy today.
“I don’t care who you vote for, but vote,” said Joyce.
Back in Saskatchewan, Clementina’s experience of the war was different. She stayed on the family farm and worked, and like many other Canadians back then, had to ration certain foods to help feed the men fighting overseas.
“You only got so much sugar, so much coffee.”
Meat and dairy products were also restricted.
One of the centenarians who participated in Heather’s research project was Jean Thomas, whose husband fought and survived the war but later died of cancer when Jean was 34 with two young children.
Every year after her husband’s death, Jean would go to France to commemorate and honour those who helped her husband and others like him escape the then-German-occupied country after being shot down.
She did this work as a member of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, which her husband helped found in 1942.
Jean, who became an auditor at the Canada Revenue Agency, spent her vacations assisting and interviewing those who had helped the escapees and their families to assess their housing, food and medical care needs.
The Escaping Society disbanded in 1995 after its work was no longer required. Jean, however, continued her community service, holding various volunteer positions with Scouts Canada.
She remains a Royal Canadian Air Force Association member.
Still working at 100
Jean has long coordinated the Community Volunteer Tax Program for Saskatchewan, assisting those unable to prepare their tax returns, which she still does to this day.
As a COVID-19 precaution, people wrap their papers in a grocery bag and drop them off for Jean, who completes the tax returns and calls them to report if any money is owed.
Jean just got her first smartphone this year and is learning how to use it.
When she is not working, she accompanies the singing group of about 20 people at College II, using the facility’s black Roland grand piano to play popular songs from the early 1900s, like “Shine on Harvest Moon” and “Now is the Hour.”
“My hands and legs don’t work as well as they used to, but I can bang out enough to keep them singing.”
Jean also joined Heather’s research committee to be a volunteer liaison with seniors at College Park II for future studies.
In January, Jean received the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal for her community contributions.
Jean, who uses a wheelchair, goes to local events via paratransit.
Keeping active is something all the centenarians had in common.
“I just do what I can,” Mary Woyton, who lives at Harbour Landing, said.
Keep doing what brings you joy
Mary and Joyce sit side by side in chairs in a group exercise class.
They each have a small medicine ball they lift over their heads and bring back down to their laps, doing two sets of 10. Then they take the ball and twist it to one side and the other. While staying seated, they do heel raises.
After the exercise class, Joyce stands up and bends down, showing she can still touch her toes.
Later that afternoon, Mary’s daughter Cheryl Mack visits, and the two dance the polka together.
“Are you out of breath?” a slightly breathless Cheryl asks her mother after the dance.
“No,” said Mary, who hadn’t broken a sweat.
“Some of the things that they (the centenarians) are doing now I could never do ever,” said Susan.
“I bet you she was 90, and she would walk from her house to my house, so that’s about two kilometres,” said Cheryl about her mother.
“Living to 100 isn’t just the luck of the draw, that you just didn’t happen to have a health condition hit you earlier,” Heather hypothesized early in the study. “I think you have to be one of those people who at 70 is a go-getter and at 80 is still a go-getter in order to be that feisty 100-year-old.”
Mary went to Disneyland with her grandchildren when she was 85.
Joyce drove across the country from Ontario to Saskatchewan in two days with five wire-haired terriers when she was 69.
“Life didn’t stop at 60 or 70,” said Heather.
Susan wonders if attitude plays a role in living to 100, but one of the other researchers, Beverlee doesn’t think it is that simple and recalled her grandmother who lived to be “a grouchy 101.”
Several of the centenarians described life in an assisted living home as boring.
“(We) were busy with housework, children,” said Joyce. “We were tired but happy.”
Jean, who keeps busy volunteering, also gets bored.
“The pandemic has a lot to do with that,” she said. Before COVID-19 hit, Jean kept busy being a piano accompanist and attending scouting events.
The importance of family
“People come to visit you,” said Nick when his mother, Clementina complained she had nothing to do.
Family is important to each of the centenarians, the researchers found.
“Those visits mean everything to them,” said Susan. “They just seemed really excited every time they talked about their families.”
Even Betty, who, in her words, was never blessed with children, enjoys visits from her niece and nephew.
“Make good memories when you are younger so that you have something to look back on,” said Joyce, who likes to write about what she loves – her husband and dogs.
Life is about the little things
For the centenarians telling stories from their past is part of their lives.
“It is something that is continuing to bring them joy right now,” said Heather.
Clementina said if she could go back in time, she wouldn’t have worked as hard.
“We get so busy living our lives that we don’t look at whether we’re making good memories. We’re just in it,” said Paula. “So that was a beautiful part of their lives now. . . To be able to take that time and really delve right into those memories, feel those feelings again, and enjoy them all over again.”
Heather said centenarians appreciate small pleasures.
“They liked ice cream. They liked chocolate.” Their lives still have a lot of joy, she said.
“Life isn’t about the huge accomplishments,” said Paula. “It is the little things.”
Death is around them
All the centenarians that were a part of the research study were at peace with the fact that their deaths could be very near.
“A couple of them, I thought, seemed more concerned with what happens to the world than what happens to them,” said Susan. “They’re just kind of enjoying life day to day now.”
Heather said none of the centenarians were doing a lot of long-term planning, although they did look forward to family events, like a nephew’s recital or birthday party.
“They knew that they weren’t guaranteed tomorrow or next month,” Heather said.
“I would be happy to go,” said Christine.
“You’re not eager beaver to make it to 103?” asked Heather.
“It’s not up to me, my dear.”
Betty joked she was looking for the bucket to kick it, while Jean said she was too busy to think about dying yet.
“I don’t think they are actually looking forward to dying,” said Susan. “They’re just if it happens, it happens.”
“Death is around them,” said Heather, but added the centenarians the research team spoke to pushed back against age. “I think they always rebelled against that idea of being elderly and what that might mean to them. They were out walking themselves to church well into their 90s. They were living on their own. They were making big meals. They were doing all kinds of things that aren’t expected of people of that age.”
“Society expects them to sit in a chair, be quiet, maybe watch TV, read a book, play bingo,” said Beverlee.
“(They’re) keeping on doing what they’ve always enjoyed. Playing music, doing taxes . . . the things they’ve always done. They just want to keep doing,” said Susan.
Our Prairie stories matter too.
The Flatlander takes a closer look at the stories that unite us, and make us unique, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Will you help us tell our stories?