Toulon (France) (AFP) – Her wish for her 118th birthday is “die soon”. But in the meantime, Lucile Randon, better known as “Sister Andre”, always keeps her door open to any visitor who might want to say hello.
Sister Andre is the oldest known woman in France and Europe, and the second oldest in the world after Kane Tanaka, a 119-year-old living in Japan.
She was born in Ales, southern France, on February 11, 1904, the year New York opened its first subway, the Tour de France had only been ridden once, and World War I was still a decade away.
In her room in a retirement home in the southern city of Toulon, Sister Andre has a single bed, a statue of Mary and a radio that she never turns on again. The outside world, she says, is too stressful.
Most of the time she sits in a wheelchair, her head tilted to the side, her blind eyes closed.
Is she praying, thinking, or napping? It’s difficult to say. But when she speaks, her voice is present and her memories vivid.
Her daily routine begins at 7 a.m. when she is awakened and taken to breakfast before being driven to morning mass, which, always in her nun’s habit, she never misses.
“It’s terrible that I’m dependent on others for everything I do,” said Sister Andre, who worked full-time until the late 1970s and cared for other, often younger, residents until she was 100.
“I’m happy when I have company,” she said — particularly that of David Tavella, a staff member at the home where she has lived for a decade and her dearest companion. “He’s charming,” she said, taking his hand.
Tavella also acts as her public relations agent, taking interview requests from reporters, sifting through the many boxes of chocolates sent by admirers, and checking her mail.
Among her letters are handwritten New Year’s wishes for 2022 sent by Emmanuel Macron – the 18th President of France during Sister Andre’s lifetime – which he signed “Sincerely.”
Most centenarians live in the so-called blue zones of the world, where people live longer than average: they are in Japan’s Okinawa, the Italian island of Sardinia, the Greek island of Ikaria, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, and the California city of Loma linda
France, although not a blue zone, was still home to the world’s oldest person with certified birth certificates, Jeanne Calment, who lived in Provence and died in Arles in 1997 at the age of 122.
The presumed oldest of France also calls the south of the country his home. Andre Boite is one of the very few male super centenarians, a term defined as being over 110 years old.
At 111, Boite still lives in his own home, likes to wear three-piece suits, and stays away from reporters.
In 2015 there were half a million people worldwide over the age of 100, although the UN says that number could grow to 25 million by the end of the century.
In France alone, according to the Insee statistics institute, there are 30,000 centenarians compared to just 200 in 1950, of whom around 40 are 110 years of age or older.
“That’s not young”
Among them is Hermione Saubion who, when reminded of her age, says: “That’s old, that’s not young, I’m hanging on.”
But when she wakes up from a nap in a wheelchair in the canteen of the retirement home in Banon in the foothills of the Alps, her face is radiant and she looks attentively at her visitor.
Saubion has no specific illness, but her body has become immobile and she is almost deaf and only occasionally picks up a word, isolating her from her surroundings.
But “if we leave her in one place for too long, she protests loudly,” said Julien Fregni, a caregiver here.
Saubion, who is from Marseille and moved into the home two years ago, said she never expected that she and her sister Emilienne, who is 102, would live so long.
Centenarians like Sister Andre and Hermione Saubion often do without pharmaceutical drugs, which “is probably one of the secrets of their longevity,” said Genevieve Haggai Driguez, Sister Andre’s doctor.
“Nothing can harm her,” the doctor said of Sister Andre, whose physical condition she describes as “absolutely incredible”.
Sister Andre herself attributes her resilience to the fact that she survived the Spanish flu, a deadly flu outbreak in 1918, unscathed.
Something may be on her trail: Researchers have observed that people born before the Spanish flu have better resistance to Covid than those born later.
‘We are waiting’
Nearby, in a retirement home in Valreas, Provence, lives Aline Blain, a 110-year-old retired teacher.
Known for being sometimes bossy and sometimes cute, Blain enjoys reading Paris Match, a celebrity magazine.
Her daughter Monique, 76, comes almost every day to look after her mother, who says these visits are “the most important thing for me”.
She’s one of the lucky ones. Many people of this age have no one to share their life stories with because most of their generation’s friends and family have already left.
Her own death, on the other hand, is rarely taboo for the super centenarians.
“We are waiting. We wait for the end, for death. He will come,” Saubion said.
Sister Andre even admits a certain impatience. “Being alone all day with the pain isn’t fun,” she said, but: “God doesn’t hear me, he must be deaf.”
Scientists haven’t unraveled all the secrets to longevity, but they have an idea of what it takes.
“Longevity goes hand in hand with material wealth and with democracy, particularly social democracy,” said Jean-Marie Robine, demographer and gerontologist at Inserm, a biomedical research institute.
Dietary factors play a big role, he said, with the Japanese diet of fish and vegetables proven to promote longevity, as does the vegetable-based Mediterranean diet.
“We’re not sure if these diets are actually beneficial, but we have no doubt that others like french fries, charcuterie, and cabbage aren’t as good,” he said.
While good genes play a part, living healthy seems to be fundamental for anyone hoping to live that old.
“Jeanne Calment met all the requirements for a long life, her lifestyle was impeccable,” said Catherine Levraud, head of the geriatric department at Arles Hospital. “She started smoking when she was 25, but only a cigarillo a day and a glass of port in the evening. She avoided all excesses.”
Psychological factors such as people’s general attitude towards life are also decisive.
“We know that an optimistic attitude has a direct link to the mechanics of the immune system,” said Daniela S. Jopp, professor of psychology of aging at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
In her research on German and American centenarians, she found that they were often extroverted, charismatic, easy-going in social situations, passionate about something, goal-oriented, and able to find adjustment strategies in dealing with problems.
Perhaps there is another factor involved: coquetry.
Hermione Saubion always insists on pretty hairstyles, like the two little buns she calls her “devil horns,” while Aline Blain demands dresses and matching cardigans.
And this is how Sister Andre sums up her formula for a successful life: “Find the love of your life and don’t compromise on your needs.”
© 2022 AFP