Hitting One-Hundred

Montana’s number of centenarians is expected to blossom to more than 3,000 by 2025. Three such individuals give their advice on getting there.

By Molly Priddy
Myrtle Strotdbeck, pictured at Prestige Assisted Living in Kalispell on May 11, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Sitting in a room at Prestige Care in Kalispell, 300 combined years of living experience considered one of the biggest questions humans ask: What is the secret to a long life?

For the centenarians here – Myrtle Strotdbeck, Kenneth Soward, and Wilbur Hauth – the question is met with a long look and quick chuckle.

“Really never gave it much thought, I just kept on going,” Myrtle said. “It’s been a good life.”

Living to 100 years old is a special privilege, one marked with much-deserved celebrations and notoriety. The centenarians living in the assisted living facility here represent about 1.7 percent of the population in Montana: according to the 2010 Census, there were 175 centenarians in Big Sky Country.

That number is expected to swell in the next decade. According to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, Montana is expected to have 3,000 centenarians by 2025, as more people continue to live longer.

Nationwide, the centenarian population has grown about 66 percent in the past 30 years, according to census data. With the 2010 census reporting roughly 309 million people living in the U.S., centenarians represented approximately 0.0173 percent of Americans, with 53,364 reported.

Earlier this year, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging announced it would like to recognize all Montanans who are or will be at least 100 years old by Dec. 31 as a way to honor the state’s elders while also raising awareness of the state’s rapidly aging population.

For Myrtle, Wilbur, and Ken, however, being 100 is less about counting years and more about recounting the people and places that made their lives a century of unique chances and, for the most part, happy.

Myrtle remembers growing up on a ranch in Montana with great parents who sent her to school five miles away on the back of her trusty horse. Well, mostly trusty.

“The last one I had was a very stubborn rascal,” Myrtle said of the pony that would walk four miles then refuse to go the final one.

She would grow up to marry and have children, and learned to nurse in Kalispell. While discussing her life, Myrtle wears headphones connected to a microphone, and is in constant motion, moving her wheelchair back and forth with her feet.

When her kids left home, Myrtle stayed busy volunteering and got a job at the hospital. Eventually, she worked taking care of a family who had all been injured in a car wreck.

“I loved it. I loved working for them,” she said.

How does one talk about a life lived for 100 years in a few simple sentences?

“There’s so many stories. So many stories,” Myrtle said.

For Ken, early life involved moving about the Midwest before growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also remembered the trials of getting to school as a kid, when he had to walk a mile and a half, regardless.

“There was no money for the street car fare,” he said.

His life can be broken down into two distinct categories, Ken said: Times he was lucky, and times he was unlucky. The last 100 years have been mostly filled with luck, from an attentive teacher in high school who set him on a good path to working as a geologist with the U.S. Navy.

After World War II, Ken worked with the Bureau of Reclamation and came to Montana with exploration crews to help figure out where the Hungry Horse Dam should be located.

He also felt particularly lucky in finding his wife Aida, who he married in 1942.

“I had a wife who was two or three times smarter than me,” Ken said.

His children support him; his daughter Patricia diStefano visits every day.

“He’s been there for us,” diStefano said of her father. “Anything else is not conceivable.”

Wilbur also enjoys spending time with his family, in particular his son who lives here in Kalispell. The two still go fishing multiple times a week, and Wilbur lives completely independently.

He was brought up in Cleveland, Ohio and was 18 and working for U.S. Steel as a machinist apprentice when World War II broke out. Wilbur joined the Navy and was “shipped all over,” working in battle zones on the water on a converted destroyer used to refuel and repair PT boats.

Not one to talk about the war, Wilbur succinctly said, “It was a sad experience.”

After the war, he went back to work at U.S. Steel and became a foreman. He would work there for the next 44 years, and retire in 1976. He’s still living off his pension, and likes to joke that the company never expected him to stick around this long.

He and his wife lived in Arizona for 15 years enjoying the golfing lifestyle – Wilbur loves to golf almost as much as he likes to fish – and he lost her eight years ago.

His sons moved him to Montana so he wouldn’t have to live alone, and “the state helped” him stop driving by taking away his license at age 98.

Wilbur, like Myrtle and Ken, said his life was happy because he was connected to so many people. He attributes his long life to learning how to work with different kinds of people at U.S. Steel.

“It was a good experience to learn to get along with different types of individuals,” Wilbur said. “It helped me look at life a little lighter.”

“I agree with that,” Myrtle chimed in.

Ken said his longevity is due in part to good health care, but largely to his family and staying busy after retirement. When he ended his career, he spent the next 25 years running a cherry orchard in Polson while in “retirement.”

Aging comes with challenges, too. Along with the physical deterioration on the human body, there are emotional burdens.

“One of the hardest things I have to cope with is losing my friends,” Wilbur said. “Every year when I write Christmas cards, I write fewer each time. I’m down right now to nobody.”

All three said they’ve enjoyed their time at Prestige Care because the people are friendly and the activities keep them involved. Executive director Patty Cordell said the centenarians are a gift, but also illustrate how complex living into the twilight years has become.

“We have such a span of ages now, we’ve got from 70 to 100,” Cordell said. “It’s gotten more challenging to figure out which generation I’m appealing to.”

At one point, Cordell said she had a mother and daughter in care, and has plenty of clients with family at home caring for a spouse as well. The next generation of centenarians might not have the cushion like those living here now, she said, because pensions are largely part of the past.

“I worry about the next generation that doesn’t have the retirement plan that this generation did,” she said.

The next wave of centenarians will face new challenges. But while some things change, others never do: Wilbur, Ken, and Myrtle advocated connecting to community, family, and each other to reach 100.

That should be easier than in years past, according to Wilbur.

“People are more friendly now,” he said. “They’re not as distant.”

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