Nova Scotia

Sauerkraut, soap operas and taking risks: Centenarians share secrets to a long life

Students from the University of Richmond in Virginia are travelling to Nova Scotia this month to interview residents in their 90s and 100s as part of a yearlong course called Longevity and Happiness.

Students from the U.S. are visiting Nova Scotia in October to learn from the province's oldest residents

Margaret Meister, 101, says she had 'wise parents,' never smoked and always took risks. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Margaret Meister has never had trouble keeping up. 

When the 101-year-old moved into a nursing home in Mahone Bay, N.S., a few years ago, staff had to remind her not to speed down the halls. 

"I always was a daredevil," Meister says by phone from Mahone Bay. "I told my friends here I'd like to jump out of a plane and go on a parachute."

So is it Meister's predilection for pushing the limits, her love of the ocean or something else entirely that's helped earn her a coveted spot as one of Nova Scotia's longest living residents?

It's a question that 15 students from the University of Richmond in Virginia hope to explore.

They're travelling to Lunenburg County in mid October to interview residents in their 90s and 100s as part of a yearlong course called Longevity and Happiness. 

Location, location, location

This is the second year that Dr. Jane Berry, a psychology professor at the University of Richmond, has led a team of students to Nova Scotia. In addition to interviewing residents, they'll meet with the South Shore Genealogical Society and professors at Dalhousie University. 

Nova Scotia is known for its high number of centenarians, although census data from 2016 shows Saskatchewan has recently taken top spot in Canada, followed by Manitoba, then New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Census data also shows the number of centenarians grew by over 40 per cent, the fastest growing cohort in the country.

The University of Richmond team from last year included Jane Berry, Jieyi (Crystal) Ding, Sara Cloonan, Grace Holzer, Caitlin Livesey, Hannah Wolfe, Haley Neuenfeldt, Ayaka Hasegawa, Susie Shepardson, Maryann Adesoba, Anvi Savani, Chris Cushman, Jane Berry and Chris Selwood. (Submitted by Jane Berry)

Berry says while good health and good genes play a major role in aging well, you can't rule out location. Researchers have discovered so-called "blue zones," such as Ikaria, Greece, and Okinawa, Japan, where people live longer. 

"It's still a mystery but I do think the tight-knit community is huge." - Dr. Jane Berry

"It's still a mystery," says Berry. "But I do think the tight-knit community is huge. It's a place where people have each other's backs."

The diet of people in these regions can also impact longevity, as can having "a strong work ethic and also an affinity for being outdoors," Berry says. 

The power of sauerkraut

If it's diet that makes the difference, Phyllis Creaser's favourite food could hold the answer. The 101-year-old loves sauerkraut, a staple on the South Shore. 

Creaser says she'll eat it just about any way, but she's partial to cooking "it with corned beef and then you make mashed potatoes with it."

Students from the University of Richmond's sophomore scholars in residence program interviewed Phyllis Creaser during their first trip to Lunenburg County in 2016. (Submitted by Jane Berry)

Creaser, who was interviewed by students last year, lives right by the ocean in Riverport. 

She says she doesn't move around as easily as she used to, but she stays busy crocheting or watching her favourite show, The Young and the Restless

Cheryl Lamerson, president of the South Shore Genealogical Society, says conversations between seniors and students are especially important when the province's aging population is often only seen as a negative.

"I think the seniors loved it and the students came away just completely amazed at how wonderful the people were to talk to," Lamerson says. 

A photo that 101-year-old Phyllis Creaser shared with students from the University of Richmond. (Submitted by Jane Berry)

'I can't complain'

One of the key questions students in Berry's course will tackle while they're in Nova Scotia is whether happiness helps you live longer. 

She says research shows having a positive view of yourself and your age can add years to life.

"Centenarians aren't necessarily happier than the rest of the population but they take things in stride, they somehow cope," she says. "They somehow integrate the hard blows in their life into their life's journey."

Meister has recently taken up a new hobby: painting. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Meister lost her husband of 56 years in 1998.

"When you get older, well naturally you have more demands and you get more care, but I can't complain," she says. 

These days, she spends most of her time visiting with family, solving lexicons or learning to paint. Her latest project is a painting of the bright yellow dory that's become a birthday tradition.

For the past few years, Meister has celebrated by taking a ride in the dory, just like she did as a kid growing up outside Yarmouth. 

She plans to be back on the sea for her 102nd birthday on Oct. 19.