Most Pharmacies have a patient (or more) that is a centenarian. Living to the age of 100 is quite an achievement, considering these patients grew up and lived the prime of their lives in an era that had a healthcare model quite different from today. Knowledge of how diet, exercise, nutrition and medicine interplay to result in a long life wasn’t as advanced as it is today. Some may say the diet 100 years ago was superior to today’s diet. They probably wouldn’t be wrong. Sanitation, pasteurization, and crop control were at a different stage at this point in time than they are today.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Margaret MacPhee, 103 years old from Baddeck, Nova Scotia recently to ask her what her life experiences that may have helped get her to this age. In an interview that was hopefully not patronizing, she opened up about her life from childhood to today.
Margaret was born at home during the wintertime of 1915 and grew up in a house in Upper Baddeck (Big Baddeck) the fourth oldest child in a family of 11. She wonders how she managed to be living at all growing up back then let alone survive to be 103. Her house had no electricity or phone and was heated from one central stove. Her father was a farmer and her mother “had lots to do with all the children”. This was not uncommon for the families that grew up in the area as every family seemed to be large. She went to school in Upper Baddeck for 11 years then went out working from home to home in the area doing housework. She was married to Charles D MacPhee in 1946 until he passed away in 1992. They had one daughter (Catherine), a large difference from her family size growing up.
Margaret didn’t smoke or drink alcohol during her life. She didn’t recall taking any type of vitamin or herb growing up. As a child she doesn’t directly recall most of the healthcare or medicine of the time. She recalls early in her life coming home from Sydney and then coming down with Scarlet Fever. She doesn’t remember what Dr MacMillan gave her at that point but she survived this. She clearly tells about being quarantined alone in her room where her mother soaked a blanket and hung it in the doorway of the room to keep the germs from spreading to the rest of the house. Given the lack of modern day entertainment sources for children back then, it must have been a lonely time for Margaret during the long hours of the days and nights while she recovered. No one else came down with the disease in the house. She also had measles and as well had whooping cough, which she recalls almost dying from. She lost a brother to the whooping cough (a twin of another brother). Another brother died from croup at a just a few months old. There were no vaccines at this point for them of course and routine visits to the doctor weren’t all that common unless there was a need. Given the lack of antibiotics and vaccines back then, childhood was a journey with pitfalls not seen today that made it more of an accomplishment to get to adulthood than it is now.
When asked of her sleep habits she says, “now I’m sleeping all the time. If I lay down at all I’m asleep!” She says living as a young girl on the farm you were up early to do your chores and then get ready for school. When you came home you started into the chores again. There were three meals a day, breakfast and supper and home and lunch was taken to school. Food eaten back then was grown on the farm. Herring and codfish were also staples as were beef and pork from the farm. Whole food was the norm. Processed and ultra-processed food we see today weren’t the food choice back then living on the farm.
Margaret isn’t one for social media, and as mentioned,growing up they had no phone. They burned kerosene lamps for light at night. Electricity wasn’t something she had in a home until she got married and moved out on her own. One of the biggest differences between then and now was the direct social network everyone had. There wasn’t a night in the winter regardless of how stormy it was, that there weren’t people over at the house. Family or friends and neighbors would visit until 11:00 at night every night. A common activity was playing cards and it wasn’t uncommon for visitors to travel with snowshoes back home. Picturing what it would be like with no power or contact with the anyone (TV, cell phone, social media, email or texting) makes it more understandable how long evenings were passed with groups of visitors every day. She says there isn’t anything like this today. In fact we have seen survival rates from some diseases like cancer have a better survival rate when the patient has a better direct social network available to them. If there was a storm, there were no plows but for two days after the storm everyone would be out with their horse and sleighs making a path on the road.
One of her earliest recollections in the house was a day when her father was out working, perhaps out in the woods, and her mother was out doing chores outside of the house briefly at noon. She was left in the house with her two older brothers, one of them being in charge while she was out. She recalls it being a stormy day, her mother was out feeding the animals and when she came out of the barn she smelled smoke. Looking in the direction of the house her mother saw smoke coming from the house and chimney. Her father smoked and instead of using matches he would use long thin sticks to light his pipe that he lit in the fire. Her babysitting brother found some of these laying around and grabbed one and put it in the fire. There was an open chimney behind the stove with bark, kindling, and papers in it. He threw the stick in the chimney causing everything in it to catch fire. By the time her mother made it back to the house, her brother had taken the younger brother out of the high chair and ran with him into the bedroom off of the kitchen and closed the door, leaving Margaret crawling around on the floor. When her mother got to Margaret she was almost to the blazing chimney. Her mother had her hands full.
Today only two sisters, Agnes (Baddeck) and Marion (Sydney) are still alive. Marion’s daughter was raised for a while by Margaret’s mother when Marion went to Sydney to work, so she thinks of her as a sister. Her siblings lived to be in their 70’s for the most part. Her mother died 4 months shy of her 100th birthday. Margaret remembers her mother as being a hard working woman. She wasn’t a nurse but she feels she could have been and would help deliver babies, was good around animals and people. Her father passed away of a heart attack at 69 years of age.
In looking at what contributes to Margaret’s long life, we can certainly attribute her DNA passed down by her mother as being a major contributing factor. There wasn’t a lot of money to go around the family growing up, but like the other families in the area they got through it. Living on whole unpasteurized milk (not recommended today), curds, butter, cream, butter milk, vegetables and fresh farm raised meat. Today she eats a little differently, margarine and 2% milk, and some processed food she might heat up in the microwave. Aside from being forgetful with names, she is still quite active and comes into the pharmacy regularly. A good sleep habit and regular physical activity are undoubtedly helping her to age in a healthy manner. As a child and an adult, she had no cell phone to keep her up at night disrupting her sleep. Finally, a strong network of other contacts that she regularly saw reflects the results we’ve seen in longevity from other studies.
Margaret has no major regrets looking back. She supposes back growing up there were a lot of regrets of what she had to do but nothing lasting. She recalls a story of two men in their 80’s for how she feels of this stage of life. One says to the other how great he feels and wakes up everyday wanting to take on the world. The other one says he feels just the opposite. He feels like a baby, “I have no hair, no teeth, and I just wet myself”. Margaret also has a good sense of humor.
I’d like to thank Margaret for yet another down to earth talk with her and her willingness to share her experiences with everyone.