Shirley Hodes, 106, hasn't seen her little sister, Ruth "Ruthy" Sweedler, 103, in person since 2015. Visiting is difficult, since they live in different assisted living facilities over 800 miles apart by car — Hodes outside Asheville, North Carolina, and Sweedler outside Hartford, Connecticut — and neither is too mobile anymore.
Still, they speak on the phone three times a week. Hodes uses a landline specially selected to have giant numbers and as few buttons as possible, since her eyes aren't so keen.
Regardless, she's going to do whatever she needs to stay connected to her only remaining sibling. She and Sweedler were the youngest of their working-class immigrant parents' eight children.
"Family is very important to us," says Hodes. "Close relationships are very important. They keep you going."
Sweedler agrees: The key to longevity is to "be happy, be healthy, and have love in your life."
From afar, Hodes and Sweedler seem as similar as two slices of rye bread. They're both tiny, beaming Jewish widows with puffy hair the color of late-winter snow.
But they insist on their individuality. She and her little sister aren't "very much alike at all," Hodes says. Sweedler "likes to boast."
Hodes "pokes into people's lives," says Sweedler. By contrast, "I just want to have an up-to-date conversation about what's going on in the world."
"I'm very nosy," Hodes admits, unconcerned. But "everybody needs other people! Life would be empty if you didn't meet and want to know about other people."
'Keep your body in good shape and your mind in good shape'
There's little value to living past 100 if you can't enjoy your time here, the sisters agree. That means taking care of yourself in a holistic way. "You need good health so you can participate in life," says Hodes.
"Keep your body in good shape and your mind in good shape," says Sweedler. "Then you've got it made."
1. Get your steps in
Long before Fitbits or iPhones tracked you so you could see how close you come to hitting 10,000 steps a day, Hodes and Sweedler made a point of staying active.
"When I lived at home, I would walk with friends at the reservoir. It was just wonderful. A five-mile walk and I did it every morning. Uphill and downhill, so it really gave you a workout."
Though she is not "as agile" as her sister these days, Sweedler still takes laps, inside when necessary and outdoors as the Connecticut climate allows.
Living in North Carolina, Hodes has the advantage of milder weather and aims for a daily walk. Twice a week, when her daughter comes by, they take a stroll together on the building grounds.
Hodes has always liked getting outside and moving around: "It was part of my life, to go for a walk." It was practical, too, because she and her husband had to be careful with money, she says: Walking "was the cheapest thing you could have that I enjoyed."
2. Cultivate connection
As children in a poor family, "every part of our lives was making do," says Hodes. "We had maybe the bare necessities, but we had the necessities."
Though there was conflict, "we overcame, we got along, we cared for each other. We had plenty of fights because you have to be heard! You raised your voice. But that's OK."
Learning to make yourself heard when necessary, and learning to get along, served both of them well. "There were a lot of things we had to put up with, but we were better people for that," says Hodes.
Life would be empty if you didn't meet and want to know about other people.Shirley Hodesage 106
Where Hodes lives, residents are always coming and going, and she loves the variety. "It keeps me interested! I sit with new people, make conversation, ask questions, get them to open up."
You can learn a lot that way: After all, she says, "you never know what's hidden in a person."
Both women have fond memories of their husbands. "Nothing is better than a good marriage," says Sweedler.
"I had a wonderful husband and wonderful children," echoes Hodes. "It's a great fulfillment."
3. Read widely
Hodes's advice to anyone who wants to stay mentally sharp is, "Read, so you can keep developing your mind."
The women share a passion for literature and the arts that started when they were young. "We were a reading family, and we didn't have to spend money on books, because the library was close," says Hodes.
"When I was a little girl and got my library card, that was the best thing that happened to me," says Sweedler. Now she's in a book group, and not the kind where members primarily drink wine and gossip: "We read stories and discuss them." She's drawn to Black authors in particular because they expose her to different experiences and points of view.
Increasingly, scientists find, loneliness can kill. But "if you love to read, you'll never be lonely," says Sweedler. "Every book is your friend."
4. Eat moderately
The first thing Sweedler says when asked the secret to living well past 100 is, "you don't ever smoke and you don't ever drink." Beyond that, though, she doesn't have too much specific to say about what to, or not to, put into your body.
She has a "pretty good diet," she says. "I try to stay away from desserts."
If you love to read, you'll never be lonely.Ruth Sweedlerage 103
"I did like to eat a simple, balanced diet without too much sweets," Hodes says, following guidelines taught in the Red Cross nutrition course she took during the Second World War. ("They wanted to keep us healthy.") Though she tries to limit animal fat and drinks skim milk, she enjoys a little ice cream after dinner.
The bottom line seems to be, with food as well as everything else, is not to go to extremes: "It doesn't hurt to live a good, moderate life."
5. Focus on the positive
"I'm a lucky person," says Hodes. "Although I've had illnesses and problems, I've overcome them."
As a bright child, she was skipped a grade. But college wasn't a possibility. As a teenager, she already worked and, after she graduated, she had to make money.
She gets wistful thinking about what could have been: "I didn't have a lot of schooling, but the schooling I had, I enjoyed." She would have liked a more challenging, high-level career.
But she doesn't dwell on regrets: "I happen to be very fortunate."
Her disposition helps. Fundamentally, she's a cheerful person, an optimist. "Not all people appreciate what's in their life — they take it for granted. I'm not like that. I like to analyze situations, and I feel like I've been blessed."
Sweedler has had more than her fair share of grief: Both her daughters died relatively young. Still, why spend your time feeling bitter or dwelling on regrets?
As a child, she was commended for her good attitude. "When I walked into a classroom, my teacher would say, 'Good morning, sunshine!' Because I was so cheerful."
Now she's 103, and that hasn't changed. "I'm interested in everything, and I'm in the here and now," says Sweedler. "I don't look back; I look forward."
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Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the distance between Hartford, Connecticut, and Asheville, North Carolina.