GOSHEN — Louise Hoeppner is vague when acquaintances ask her for advice on how to live long.
The Greencroft Goshen resident — born when Woodrow Wilson was president, before the outbreak of World War I and a year and a half after the sinking of the Titanic — turned 100 last September. "I tell 'em, 'I don't know. It's just the Lord's blessings," she said.
She stays busy, as busy as a centenarian can be. She makes small blankets for kids at Elkhart's Faith Mission homeless shelter, reads Christian romance novels, watches Chicago Cubs baseball on TV. When her fingers aren't hurting, she bowls on a Wii gaming system. When she's feeling restless, she strolls the hallways of Greencroft, a housing complex for the elderly in Goshen.
"I have to use that," she said from her tidy apartment, gesturing to a walker. "But I can walk fast. Men always tease me, 'You want to race?'"
Whatever her secret, Hoeppner (whose husband, Lawrence, was a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Elkhart before passing in 1973) is in a select group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were just 35 people age 100 or older in Elkhart County in 2010, a minuscule 0.018 percent of the 197,559 people here. That said, the number is up from 26 in 2000. Likewise, the number of centenarians nationwide in 2010 reached 53,364, up 65.8 percent from 32,194 in 1980, according to the Census Bureau.
For those who work with the elderly, such numbers — indicative of the growing average life span of Americans — point to a range of concerns likely to become more pronounced in years to come as more people inch toward the century mark. Lack of adequate, affordable housing that meets the health and mobility needs of the expanding population of seniors is likely to become a more acute issue, thinks Tammy Friesen, executive director of the Council on Aging of Elkhart County.
Longer life spans mean life savings that help keep the elderly afloat will more likely run out before death, Friesen adds. Getting older can also lead to isolation as seniors outlive their contemporaries, children and other family members.
That said, Hoeppner and 101-year-old Frances Thorp, another Elkhart County centenarian, seem to manage. They're upbeat, alert -- notwithstanding occasional lapses of memory -- and, all things considered, active. It's probably not for nothing if you make it into the 100-year club.
"You probably have some pretty good genes, whoever made it that long," said Cathy Beery Berg, Greencroft's director of residential life services.
'NEVER PAID ATTENTION TO MY AGE'
Like Hoeppner, Thorp can't pinpoint the cause for her longevity. Thorp lives at Brentwood, a retirement community in eastern Elkhart.
"I don't know," she said. "I never paid attention to my age. I did what I wanted to do and didn't worry about it. That's the best way."
That's not to say Thorp, born Sept. 13, 1912, in Benton City, Mo., is reckless.
The former nurse's aide and clerk at Wyman's department store in South Bend remembers how she used to keep active doing yard work. She's had a knee replaced, but she didn't need a pill for pain until she was in her 80s. In general, she has rarely experienced major health issues and the only meds she takes are to keep her blood pressure under control, said Helena Benway, a friend who's adopted Thorp as a mother of sorts.
"She's very strong willed," said Benway, visiting Thorp in her Brentwood unit.
Thorp's husband died in 1978 and surviving family members are few and far between. She never had children and she's outlived her six siblings.
Even so, the woman has created a niche for herself and she does quite fine. She putters around her room, keeping it neat, plays bingo and regularly visits the common area at the Brentwood complex to "talk to the ladies." She watches Judge Judy — "I like her, she's smart" — and Lawrence Welk. She's not one to dwell or get moody and focuses on the here and now.
"If you can't do something, do it anyway," Thorp advises.
Moving around at a one-mile-per-hour turtle's pace is better than nothing. "I've seen so many of them, they just don't want to move. That's not the way to be," she continues.
Benway helps a lot. She regularly visits, and takes Thorp out on the town each Friday for breakfast and trips to Walmart and Martin's Super Market. It all started when Benway made a chance visit to Thorp's room, then at the Cornerstone building in downtown Elkhart, to make a food delivery as a volunteer for the Meals on Wheels program.
"I went out of the room and said, 'Oh my God. Is she not the cutest thing you ever did see?'" Benway said.
"She took me over," said Thorp. Benway and her husband Bob, she continues, are "my pride and joy."
SOME MEMORIES FADE, OTHERS STICK OUT
Ask Hoeppner and Thorp about World War I, the Great Depression and World War II — milestone 20th century events — and their memories grow fuzzy. "Sometimes when you get old, it kind of slips your mind," Thorp said.
But other things stick out.
Thorp recalls the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965, which devastated the Dunlap area between Elkhart and Goshen. She and her husband got caught up in the storm — the details are sketchy — and he ended up with a broken pelvis. She didn't drive at the time, so she ended up making a long walk daily to and from Elkhart General Hospital to see him as he recuperated.
"That was a hard thing to get over. But you plug along," Thorp said.
Hoeppner, born Sept. 17, 1913, in Chicago, remembers when the neighbor kids would converge on the family's Elkhart home to play ping pong and hang out with her children, now age 79, 78 and 70. Their visits would linger until the evening hours, it seemed.
Such memories sometimes make her choke up. "I sit here and have cries," she said.
But they also provide a measure of comfort. Indeed, after 100-plus years, it's enough sometimes to just ponder days gone by, looking out her living room window to the trees and sunlight outside. "I just sit here and talk to God and thank him for all the blessings," she said.