SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The Great Depression was raging, displacing people from their homes and shoes from their feet. But a young Marion Layman was basking in the Florida sun, catching brim with a cane pole while her mother fried the sweet bony fish with cornmeal in an iron skillet over an open fire.
“I never remember being poor, never remember going hungry,” Layman said. “I just remember living off the land. I thought it was great fun. I so enjoyed those trips.”
Layman, who will celebrate her 90th birthday next week, considers herself “just ordinary” and “very fortunate.”
“I never expected to live this long,” Layman said. “But I have a good life and no right to complain about anything. I don’t hurt, and I don’t feel 90.”
She’s one of a couple hundred La Plata County residents considered among the nation’s “oldest old” by the U.S. Census Bureau. The designation refers to members of society who live to and past age 90, and it’s a group of Americans that’s growing with each passing decade, census numbers show.
The number of Americans alive and older than 90 grew to 1.87 million in 2010, up from 1.45 million a decade earlier, according to the Census Bureau. It brings the age group’s footprint to 0.6 percent of the nation’s population. Colorado and La Plata County saw the percentage of residents living past age 90 increase, as well, from 0.3 percent to 0.4 percent. The county had 232 “oldest old” residents, and the state had 23,616 residents in that category at last count.
Sure, the longevity of life comes with some downsides, said Layman’s son, Richard Bourret.
“I don’t think the young ever think about the constant sense of loss the very elderly feel,” said Bourret, who also cares for his 92-year-old mother in-law. “The longer you live, the more people you know and the more you stand to lose. You watch so many individuals who are precious to you pass away.”
Mary Helen Lindsay, 97, has seen all but two of her nine siblings die.
“We used to visit each other every year,” Lindsay said. “We took turns visiting each other, We’d spend a week at each house, all in different parts of the country, sightseeing and spending time together.”
But like Lindsay, Layman doesn’t dwell on the losses, despite seeing two husbands die from cancer and saying goodbye to all of her friends who followed suit, each in their own way. Nor does she let her thoughts linger on the many decades of tough times and hard work that came with being a mother of five who spent many years going it alone, acting as both “mother and father” to Bourret and his siblings.
Instead, Layman, who describes herself as a life-loving optimist who spent five decades as a smoker and “enjoyed every puff,” remembers the excitement of landing her first job working for Pan American – after telling a white lie about her age, of course. She speaks fondly of her travels and periods of life spent in places including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece and Italy. And she is proud of a 15-year stint spent running a regular bridge game at the Durango/La Plata Senior Center after moving to Durango in 1990.
“She’s just one of those people who has shared her entire life,” Bourret said. “Through all those tough times, and even as little as we had, she was always the one who would hold out her hand and say she was there if any of our friends ever needed help. She has always been so anxious to share love and care for others.”
And that just may be the key.
At Sunshine Gardens Assisted Living, more than a handful of residents living out their 90s, including 97-year-old Allene Pera, said they think love and an active life helped them.
“I don’t worry about things, and I enjoy life,” said 95-year-old Lou Gans when asked his secret for a long life.
Jessie Winecki, 98, said she always worked to keep busy. Her sense of humor also keeps her smiling – after she keeps a straight face while issuing a barrage of jokes and sarcasm.
Adeline Becay, 90, said she took to climbing Colorado’s peaks to stay spry. She has conquered 36 mountains with elevations higher than 13,000 feet.
“And I didn’t start until I was 50,” Becay said.
Overcoming adversity also may have played a role in a longer life, those interviewed for this story said. For most, the Great Depression is never far from the mind, and each had his or her own tale of triumph over adversity to tell.
Lindsay lost both her mother and father at a young age. The flu of 1918 took Lindsay’s mother, and tuberculosis later took her father. Being “kicked around” among the homes of extended family members made her strong, she said.
Pera, meanwhile, spent the Depression living on nothing but biscuits after the Rico mine that employed her family shuttered. Having five children with chickenpox all at once was no easy task, either, she said.
But at the end of the day, there truly is no secret to living beyond 90, they all said. You either do or you don’t. As with anything else, you just adapt day by day, they said.
“Everything changes,” Winecki said. “The whole world has changed.”