Gertrude Baines, who was the world’s oldest person when she died on Friday at age 115, was an ordinary woman whose longevity gave her an extraordinary life. But what strikes me most about her death is how ordinary lives like hers soon may be.
Just hours before Ms. Baines was found dead in her bed in a Los Angeles convalescent home, Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare reported that the number of centenarians in that country has doubled in just six years, to more than 40,000. The United Nations projects that, by 2050, Japan alone will have nearly 1 million people who have been alive a century or more.
Japan has some of the world’s longest life expectancies, but lifespans are lengthening across the developed countries. My maternal grandfather was not quite 70 when he died in 1960; my other grandparents died in their 70s. They were old. Today, an American who dies at those ages is drawing the short demographic straw.
Baines was remarkable not just for her years but because she stayed alert and engaged in the world to the very end. She had a modest background, from her birth in Georgia to a father who was born a slave through her career as a housekeeper at Ohio State University. But she lived to vote for the first African-American president, and she received a letter from him when she celebrated her 115th birthday in April.
The Associated Press reported that Baines was in good health before dying of an apparent heart attack. She enjoyed Jerry Springer and other television programs, and complained when she thought her bacon was too soggy.
The decades in front of us are going to produce large numbers of extremely elderly people. Keeping all these people alive is a great achievement, but allowing those extra years to be meaningful and satisfying will be even more difficult. We will need to make a lot of progress against age-related mental decline. We will need new ways of delivering support services to help the elderly keep their independence as much and as long as possible. And, if only because it will cost so much to support so many for so long, we will need to reconsider the entire concept of retirement and the age at which people should be expected to step back from productive activity.
In the not-too-distant future, someone dying at age 115 might not be remarkable at all. If that person had retired at age 65, she (the great majority of centenarians are women) or he will have faced half a century without regular study or work. When Gertrude Baines was born, a half-century represented a full lifetime. Humans were not designed for such prolonged idleness, and I doubt many can thrive in it.
Those 40,000 Japanese centenarians and their cohort around the world are the vanguard. If we can do well by them, we will have a better idea how to cope with the many more who will follow.