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What it's like to live past 100

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Over the past couple of decades, the number of people living past a hundred years old has doubled in the U.S., and researchers predict that rate will continue to climb. But what does it actually feel like to live to that age? A member station, Cap Radio, has a new podcast called This Is What It Feels Like. And for one episode, host Terra Lopez spoke with Glenna Lucille Walters. The resident of Rio Linda, Calif., was 106 years old at the time.

TERRA LOPEZ, BYLINE: Over the years, I had heard small stories about Glenna, how she plays her piano nearly every day and how she likes to watch "The Bachelor" every Monday night.

LOPEZ: What do you think about "The Bachelor" and "Bachelorette"?

GLENNA LUCILLE WALTERS: What do I think about it? I think they're pretty silly (laughter). You know, they - all they do is kiss, just kiss, kiss, kiss from one to the other. It's a wonder if they don't catch something (laughter). I was the bachelorette then.

(LAUGHTER)

LOPEZ: I was intrigued, not only because she's 106, but because I wanted to know how someone stays inspired at that age. Because when we talk about getting older, we usually frame the conversation around loss, the things we lose as we age, our cognitive abilities, our mobility, our awareness, our loved ones. I've always thought getting older sounded so lonely. But sitting with Glenna in her living room, I saw firsthand a future that I wanted to be a part of.

I met Glenna in her home in rural Rio Linda, Calif., where she's lived for over 40 years. Her maroon-colored recliner is in the center of the living room next to a stack of books and an Alexa. There's a wall of family photographs in the hallway, lined up next to a couple of framed letters from Barack and Michelle Obama congratulating her on her 100th birthday. Her granddaughters, Sara and Cassie McFarland, are with us helping facilitate the conversation because Glenna is hard of hearing these days.

CASSIE MCFARLAND: Grandma, did you ever imagine you would be this old?

WALTERS: I never thought about it. Do you think about it? Do you think...

MCFARLAND: I do because of you.

WALTERS: I mean, do you think you're going to be that old?

MCFARLAND: I think I could be, but I don't walk like you always did.

WALTERS: (Laughter).

LOPEZ: You probably get this, like, asked all the time. But do you have any secrets?

WALTERS: You mean apple cider vinegar? (Laughter).

LOPEZ: Is that your secret?

WALTERS: That's what I tell people because they're always asking me that. I said, well, I just drink a lot of apple cider vinegar (laughter).

LOPEZ: The best day of Glenna's life was the day she was born.

WALTERS: February the 1, 1916.

LOPEZ: When I hear Glenna say the year she was born, 1916, I don't even know how to process that. And I'm even more baffled when she tells me that she's as old as her local public library.

WALTERS: That library was put there the day I was born. I'm not kidding.

LOPEZ: Glenna was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, with her mother, father, and two sisters, Kerri and Ruby. Music has always been Glenna's first love and was a bonding force for her and her sisters. She tells me that she and her sisters played multiple instruments growing up and would perform in her town at local establishments. After she finished college, Glenna decided to follow her sister to Colorado. It was there she met her future husband, saxophone player Howard Duke Walters.

WALTERS: They introduced us, and we wrote in the rumble seat of the guy's car.

LOPEZ: What's a rumble seat?

WALTERS: (Laughter) Well, it's just an open car, but it's got a seat in the back. And that's how I met him, my husband, Howard.

LOPEZ: Glenna and Howard would end up having four children - Dan (ph), Glen, Susie and Wendy. During this time, Howard played saxophone with a popular big band, the Sonny Dunham Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALTERS: In New York, we met Sinatra. He was on the program with Howard. I've got some Sinatra's - what do you call...

LOPEZ: Autograph?

WALTERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOPEZ: Playing in a large orchestra meant dividing up the money. Glenna tells me that that's what led her and Howard to form their own family band.

WALTERS: Baronettes.

LOPEZ: Glenna played piano and sang. Howard played the saxophone, and their son Glenn played the drums. Soon the Baronettes got their first gig in Michigan.

WALTERS: Oh, that was a dandy (laughter).

LOPEZ: OK. So picture this. Glenna was touring the country in a van, hauling a trailer around with a full-sized piano, all the while caring for a newborn baby, in the '50s.

WALTERS: Well, it was our first job. And we did that for several years in the summer.

LOPEZ: The Baronettes played for years until Howard developed emphysema and had to stop playing the saxophone. But Glenna kept touring with her son Glenn and daughter Wendy, hitting the road, hauling that piano and trailer across the country.

WALTERS: I had to do the whole thing and drive all these places, you know. We had two kitty cats. We had to get a cat.

LOPEZ: In the van with you?

WALTERS: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

LOPEZ: It's these moments where you get a clear glimpse into Glenna's spirit, her natural ability to go with the flow of life, to forge ahead no matter what and to have fun while doing it.

Do you have any important lessons that you've learned over the years?

WALTERS: Lessons? You mean what should you do and what you shouldn't do?

LOPEZ: Yeah.

WALTERS: Well, you shouldn't do drugs. And I don't do drugs. And you don't smoke.

LOPEZ: Glenna and Howard moved to Sacramento in 1975, watching their children create their own families. But in 1991, Howard's health was severely declining after years of battling diabetes.

WALTERS: He didn't want to go to the hospital, and I made him go because he had diabetes. And he just wanted to die. He says, I want to croak. That's what he said. And everybody said, oh, he wants a Coke.

(LAUGHTER)

WALTERS: I said, no, he doesn't want a Coke because he drinks Pepsis.

(LAUGHTER)

WALTERS: Said, he wanted to croak.

LOPEZ: I'm struck by the ease in which Glenna is able to talk about loss. I'm sure she's had years to process this and to tell that story, but it's still remarkable to me that she's able to laugh at her own personal losses and see the lightness within it. And even though Glenna has this incredible way of letting go and living in the moment, she does reminisce about Howard and their relationship while I'm there.

WALTERS: I fell in love with that saxophone (laughter). Yes. I was very much in love with him.

LOPEZ: After Howard died, Glenna says she found a new sense of self by taking cross-country trips to state and national parks.

WALTERS: All by myself, and spent money on myself, I did.

LOPEZ: She still plays the piano and reads a lot.

MCFARLAND: Grandma, how many books do you have in your journal?

WALTERS: Four thousand and one hundred - 4,000 something.

LOPEZ: Since when?

WALTERS: Since I turned 65, I was keeping track of the books I read.

LOPEZ: You've read that many since then?

WALTERS: Yeah.

LOPEZ: That's incredible.

WALTERS: I've got a written book.

MCFARLAND: How long does each book take to read?

WALTERS: About a week.

MCFARLAND: Why don't you tell them what book you got from the library? The big one.

WALTERS: Well, it's right over there. It says, Barack Obama. And it's that thick. No kidding. I'm going to read it, I think.

LOPEZ: Is that your next book that you're going to read?

WALTERS: No, I think I'll leave that till last.

LOPEZ: I'm struck by her ability to plan ahead at this age, but even more so to have the optimism to plan ahead. As we're wrapping up the conversation, Glenna's granddaughter Cassie asks her...

MCFARLAND: What are your thoughts on all the technology and cellphones we all have?

WALTERS: Well, I usually think, well, you sure wasted a lot of time (laughter), wasting a lot of time.

LOPEZ: What brings you joy?

WALTERS: What brings me joy? Music. I like music. It's the best of anything.

LOPEZ: She turns to the Alexa that is sitting on her side table.

WALTERS: Alexa, Andre Previn needs to play some jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: That was Glenna Lucille Walters of Rio Linda, Calif. She passed away earlier this year at the age of 107. And you can find more of her conversation with Terra Lopez on the podcast This Is What It Feels Like from member station Cap Radio in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.