100 Years and Counting

Written by Jessica Testa Category: Valley News Issue: December 2011


This June, Krapell became a centenarian, a title she shares with about 830 living Arizonans and 70,490 living Americans, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.

On her 100th birthday, Krapell’s family threw a party at her current residence, Peoria’s Freedom Plaza, an independent-living senior facility in Phoenix. Or is it “senior resort”? Boasting a beauty salon, post office, convenience store, spa, indoor pool and exercise room, the seven-story building doesn’t feel like a retirement home. It’s more like a Club Med with 24-hour onsite emergency medical technicians.

“I don’t even think of my age,” says Krapell, confined to a wheelchair but beaming with a rouged face. For her, the milestone felt like any other day. 

But there is someone thinking about Krapell’s age – someone who’s made it her mission to help Arizonans over 100 feel like a cornerstone of society, rather than a pushed-aside novelty. 

Lynn Peters Adler, director of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, moved to Arizona in 1984 from New York, where she studied elder law at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Advocating for the elderly was an interest that sprung up in Adler’s teenage years, when she watched her 60-something grandmother struggle with age-related feelings of shame and marginalization.

“It seemed to me that older people became shunned by society, and I thought that was wrong,” Adler says. “We have so much to learn – not just from centenarians, but from our elders. I always thought it was a shame we don’t take advantage of their presence in our lives.”

In Arizona, Adler saw an opportunity. “I caught the pioneer spirit,” she says. “I thought I could really make a difference in this state.”

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In 1985, Adler secured a post on Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard’s Aging Services Commission, where she became chairwoman and remained for three administrations. Under Goddard, she created the Phoenix Centenarian Program, and then the Arizona Centenarian Program, organizing the first of many statewide centenarian events.

In 1987, Adler was appointed to the Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging, representing the state in Washington, D.C., on National Centenarian Day and working with the National Institute on Aging to develop centenarian programs in each state.

In 1988, Adler conducted a survey of Arizona’s 271 centenarians. She recognized five traits that most centenarians seemed to share: love of life (which included sense of humor and desire to socialize), personal courage, a positive but realistic attitude, a strong religious or spiritual belief, and the ability to “accept the losses and changes that come with aging and not let it stop them,” Adler says. She called these traits the “Centenarian Spirit.”

“They don’t sit around and worry about dying. They sit around worrying about living,” Adler says. “Most centenarians have lost their spouses. Most centenarians have lost their friends. But they’re not quitters. They go on. To hear someone who’s 103 say they’re enjoying every day of their life – there’s nothing better than that.”

In 1989, based on the success of  the Arizona programs and inspired by the survey results, Adler launched the National Centenarian Awareness Project, an organization based in Phoenix that advocates for the recognition of elders as essential members of society, nationwide. Adler, now in her 60s, has since written a book, Centenarians: The Bonus Years; co-produced a PBS documentary, Centenarians Tell It Like It Is; and introduced centenarians to Barbara Walters for an ABC special.

“All my best friends are 100 and over. We go out for lunch and we do things that people would do with any friend at any age,” Adler says. “Although they go to the gym more than I do.”

The United States has the highest number of centenarians in the world, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2010, the census counted 70,490 centenarians; in 1950, there were just 2,300. Scientific advancements have led to longer life spans, but age discrimination has stayed the same, Adler says.

While fighting that discrimination on a national level is an uphill battle, Adler has made strides in Arizona.

“I don’t think anyone pays attention to our age anymore,” Krapell says.

“If we hadn’t fallen, no one would have noticed,” agrees Susy Haggard, laughing. Haggard, an avid exerciser and bi-weekly food bank volunteer, is Freedom Plaza’s oldest resident at 104.

Lloyd McGraw, another Freedom Plaza resident, is 101 – and the reigning champion of the center’s monthly putting contests. He still remembers what it felt like getting off the airplane from Wisconsin decades ago. “Everything was new,” he says. “I’ve watched Arizona grow up.”

New acquaintances frequently ask Krapell, Haggard and McGraw about the secret of living to 100. It’s a snap, Adler says – all you’ve got to do is survive your 70s, 80s and 90s.

“It’s not just how they’re living at 100, but how they’ve lived through the preceding decades,” Adler says. “They’re not just subjects of medical study or scientific study. They are inspirations for us and for the future of our aging. They show us how to live well, and they give us a great deal of hope that we aren’t going to someday outgrow our desires for friendship and love and participating in society.”

••If you know someone 99 or older who would be interested in joining the NCAP’s Centenarian Network, find more information at adlercentenarians.org or 1-800-243-1889. If you know an Arizona resident, company or organization 100 years old or more that would be interested in attending the Arizona Centennial Foundation’s Centenarian Brunch on February 14, 2012, visit az100years.org/centenarian-brunch.