By Shannon Priem, Salem Health
When I called to confirm an interview with Irene Jones – one that I waited two weeks to get — I was informed she couldn’t make it. I was very worried about her, so I asked why.
“Sorry, you didn’t call back soon enough, so she booked a motorcycle trip with her friend,” said her niece, Marlene. “Let’s try two weeks from Wednesday.”
Irene will be 106 on her next birthday, Aug. 16.
She’s also ridden in a hot air balloon, a B-17 WWII bomber jet, and a helicopter, and rode a tandem bike with her grandson when she was younger (at 100). She hopes to pass the test to enjoy a zipline adventure. And yes, she’d like to skydive.
Salem Health geriatrician Dr. Neha Naik-Desa, MD, FACP, says Irene is a shining example of healthy longevity. Irene heads the list of at least 47 centenarians who seek care in our hospitals and clinics.
Older patients need special care
Dr. Naik-Desai knows and loves Irene as the perfect example of how to live.
Put another way: Irene has one foot on the ground and the other lifted over a motorcycle (not the grave). She is the oldest of Salem Health’s 47 centenarians.
Dr. Naik-Desai is the associate site medical director at Salem Health’s Skyline clinic, where she specializes in family-centered geriatrics. She relocated here in 2018 from New York, where she was trained in geriatrics and internal medicine.
“We look at aging as another stage in life,” she said. “Aging patients aren’t just patients — they’re families and friends, so we are constantly re-framing what getting old means.”
As in pediatrics, it means getting the whole family involved. “This sets us apart from other clinics” she added. “For example, rather than just telling people ‘you’re getting old’ we re-direct the conversation to what they enjoy doing, and how we can help them remain independent as much as possible with quality of life.”
She shared the example of a very independent music teacher now needing assisted living. “We help them identify with a new stage in life. Not as a person losing skills, but as someone who can still enjoy music.”
Also, the clinic’s elderhood care is not fragmented. Dr. Naik-Desai and teams get to know families to connect them to community services, navigate Medicare, MyChart and advance directives while coordinating all aspects of their health care. If they don’t have family, patients are asked to bring friends.
With a laugh, she adds “I get to play the conductor role.”
My first impression of Irene was amazement.
She is beautiful, bright and funny. Her smile seldom fades. Her eyes are bright and her skin glows. She gets around gracefully with her walker and doesn’t wear hearing aids. Her pacemaker was installed just three years ago. She loves to knit baby caps for her great-great-grands. She plays bingo and cards, listens to audio books (thanks to macular degeneration), loves lemon cake, donuts, root beer and Burger King.
(This list gets longer, by the way. Check out “more about Irene” below.)
She’s probably tired of hearing the gasps and “you’re kidding” when asked about her age. She moved to Willamette Lutheran Retirement Community in Keizer 30 years ago, not far from where she grew up on a 10-acre onion farm in Hubbard and attended the one-room Whiskeyville School.
She and husband Emery were also onion farmers (she vividly recalls setting out irrigation pipes) and ran a seed company until retirement in 1980. He passed in 1999. Her later boyfriend, Dick, whom she met at Willamette Lutheran died three days short of his 104th birthday.
“Auntie is very focused on the future,” says Marlene. “She hates idle time and stays busy, so we all have to keep up.”
One part of her past, however, lingers beautifully throughout her apartment –hand-crafted wood furniture. She describes each piece in loving detail from her bedframe to the many cabinets and shelves. Emery was also a carpenter.
Having friends and living in a caring community also keeps her thriving. In fact, when Irene doesn’t show up for breakfast, kitchen staff call. Irene and Marlene had a good laugh recalling when Irene overslept (once). “I’m around wonderful people who watch out for me — sometimes too much,” Irene said. Her neighbor called because Irene’s curtains, always pulled at 7:30 a.m., were still drawn.
“The nerve!” Marlene laughs. “Auntie could have been entertaining a gentleman friend.” All was forgiven.
Words of wisdom
I threw a lot more questions at her, including the obvious one about her secret to a long life: “I don’t have one, other than hard work and fresh air.”
Her answers are short, and they come quickly — but reveal a wisdom that comes from decades of life — through births, deaths, wars —you name it, she’s lived through it.
There was one last question I was afraid to ask because it hits close to home for many of us:
At your age, you’ve lost so many friends and loved ones. How do you handle the increase of loss?
Irene doesn’t hesitate. “You just learn to expect it and keep going,” she said. After a long pause, Irene added another bit of wisdom.
“I also tell people ‘I just hope I’m here as long as you are.’”
What’s behind Irene’s longevity?
With Irene’s social support and activities — and positivity — she’s a perfect role model for healthy elderhood, Dr. Naik-Desai said.
Irene’s retired provider, Liz Mills, FNOP, shared more insight.
“Irene is a very adaptable person,” she said. “She’s with people she likes, does all the health-promoting things, such as daily activities, keeps a healthy weight, eats consistently and well.”
Mills added an intriguing fact — Irene has been eating consistently regular but varied meals for 30 years. “That says something!” Mills said. “Because she’s not very hard-of-hearing, her mind stays engaged and stimulated. She’s always going forward.”
Interestingly, longevity isn’t in her genes, Mills said, noting Irene’s father died at 74. Reason listed on his death certificate was “melancholia.” Clearly, she is taking charge of her own health, Mills said.
“I always sang to her as she walked down the hall in our clinic,” Mills said. “‘Good night, Irene, good night, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams!’ She loved that.”
More about Irene