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DeKalb County centenarians share thoughts on marriage, work, and longevity

DeKALB – Mavis Bell hasn’t had a birthday party in 15 years, and her 105th birthday Sunday won’t be an exception.

It’s not because being one of only 55,000 Americans who are 100 years old or older isn’t worth celebrating, but because parties aren’t her style anymore.

“My last party was at 90,” she said. “That was enough.”

Instead she’ll honor the day with calls from family, socializing and maybe a little knitting in her apartment at Oak Crest DeKalb Area Retirement Center, where she’s one of six current residents who have been on Earth for more than a century.

A report this month from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the 55,000-member centenarian population are overwhelmingly widowed women. While many from the 100-and-older population share common characteristics, local centenarians said there’s no magic formula for hitting the century mark.

“There’s no trick to it,” Bell said. “You just work hard and take things as they come.”

There are some trends nationwide among those who were born before World War I began, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Report, “The Centenarian Population: 2007-2011.”


Getting married was a popular thing to do among the 100-and-older crowd, the report shows. About 88 percent of people 100 and older are widowed or married, while 7 percent were never married, 4 percent are divorced and less than 1 percent are separated.

Bell was married – and widowed – twice. She married her first husband, Leroy Gliddon, when she was 16 and graduated from high school a year later. They were married until he died in 1965 at the age of 59. Three years later, she married Clyde Bell, who died at 96 in 1996.

“I don’t know that marriage keeps you. It might be the opposite,” Bell quipped.

Bell credits her descendants more than her marriages for her longevity. She has two children, eight grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-grandchildren.

Socializing in general can be key to a long life, said Judith Hertz, the director of graduate nursing studies at Northern Illinois University who holds a Ph.D in gerontology. She explained it’s not necessarily about finding the one – or anyone – to marry, but developing meaningful bonds.

“It’s not just about marriage, but having close relationships with people,” Hertz said. “Feeling connected to people and being close to people improves overall health.”


Being a woman didn’t hurt the current centenarian generation on their path to surpassing 100. Women account for 81 percent of the population 100 or older, according to the report. It’s not surprising, Hertz said, considering the life expectancy rates for men and women in general.

A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that on average, men can expect to live to be 76 while women have a life expectancy around 81.

“Women tend to be good survivors,” Hertz said. “They can pick up the pieces and move on no matter what life throws at them.”

Hertz loosely attributed womens’ likelihood to outlive their male counterparts to the trend among that generation for men to be the breadwinner and women the caretakers who made sure their family received health care.

With the shift in gender roles among later generations, its not clear if the trend of women outliving men will continue, she said.

Cecilia Seip, 102, who also lives at Oak Crest, didn’t have children to care for, although she was married. Her life also included a job at the University of Chicago and some college courses, but never a concern she would live to see 100.

“It’s not easy to be 100,” Seip said. “I never believed it would happen. I think the good Lord just wants me here. I like him, and he likes me.”

Veteran status

Because the majority of centenarians are women and women were much less likely to have served during World War II, only 5 percent of centenarians are veterans. Veterans account for 23 percent of the population of those 65 and older, however.

Among them is Tony Berg, 95, of DeKalb, who’s vying for a spot in the century club. Berg is a World War II veteran who landed in France on D-Day and served in an armored artillery unit. After his service, he became a bricklayer and ultimately retired as the building supervisor for the city of Long Grove in 1983.

“I would say the secret to a long life is to do something you like to do as far as work is concerned,” Berg said. “Also, you have to be active as much as possible and stay positive.”

Whatever the trends continue to be in terms of who lives to be 100, Hertz said she’s preparing her nursing students to care for more centenarians. It’s a wise decision, the CDC report suggests, because people are living longer.

Hertz did suggest that for those hoping to live to be 100, taking up gardening and drinking a glass of wine could help.

As for Mavis Bell, she doesn’t really have time to worry about it in between meeting friends for lunch and cracking jokes.

“Keep hoping,” she quipped.

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