By Sarah Griffin
There’s no question that age has become an increasingly relative concept. I work daily with seniors who defy stereotypes, embracing new technology and communication methods, engaging in fitness and leisure pursuits generally associated with younger generations, and challenging themselves to endeavor toward unceasing intellectual and creative growth. Due in part to medical advances and improved preventative wellness, there is no longer a standard concept of what it means to be 70, 80, 90 years old.
But there’s more to it than just medicine. Attitude and outlook have much to do with the rate at which one ages. This is a concept to which Lakewood’s latest centenarian wholly subscribes. I was fortunate enough to sit down with resident Kaleel Skeirik on the occasion of his hundredth birthday and speak to him about just that. The first thing one notices upon meeting Kal is the positivity and kindness he radiates. I sought not only his secrets for longevity, but to borrow the key for unlocking that unflagging optimism.
Kal was born in 1917, a birth year he shares with Ernest Borgnine, Oshkosh, and Converse basketball sneakers. It was the year Woodrow Wilson made the decision to enter the U.S. into World War I. American women did not yet have the right to vote. The average car cost $400, and the world literacy rate was a mere 23 percent. To say that Kal has witnessed exponential change in his lifetime would be an understatement.
Kal’s youth unfolded in the rural Northeast, where his father was a circuit preacher in several small towns. His formative years were spent cultivating a love of nature— fishing, hiking and exploring the untamed countryside. This, combined with his parents’ teachings, solidified his faith. He adopted the steadfast belief of his father that “if you do your part, God will take care of you.” It was a credo that served him well when, as a college student, he enlisted in the armed forces.
Serving in intelligence for the 14th Armored Division, Kal was sent to the front lines of battle in France. Enduring several close calls, his religious beliefs were bolstered by lifesaving events that one would be hard-pressed to chalk up to luck or mere accident. He pressed on in his faith that if he kept working hard and doing what was right, God would watch out for him. It was at this time that he developed a practice of meditation to escape the grim realities and restless nights that accompanied warfare.
Though such practices were hardly mainstream concepts in 1940s America, Kal knew instinctively that he must find a healthy means of escape and grounding. For 15 minutes every day, he settled his body by means of progressive relaxation, systematically “un-tensing” the muscles of his body. He began with the extremities — his fingers, his toes — and progressed along his limbs until his entire form reached a state of rest. Then he set to work on relaxing his mind, focusing on soothing imagery — a blank wall, a body of water — until his thoughts had left him and he was able to exist in a place unfettered by officers’ orders and exploding mortar shells. In the ensuing years, Kal relied on this technique every day to set himself above the fray of life and enter into a conscious, deliberate state of being.
Such techniques are touted by today’s wellness experts, and millions of soccer moms pay millions of dollars to seek that state of purposeful calm, but Kal was certainly ahead of his time in developing this practice to address a soldier’s uniquely demanding emotional needs. In today’s parlance, “progressive relaxation” is reputed to alleviate a host of physical ills including high blood pressure, insomnia, digestive disorders and chronic pain. Such benefits are achieved by a chemical alteration within the brain; it has been suggested that, when stress hormones decrease, the nervous and circulatory systems are more fully able to heal the body’s organs.
After the war, as the nature of Kal’s stressors changed, his methods of self-nurture did as well. Landing himself a government job in D.C., he found himself back on American soil but still far from home. He sought out a church community for support and fellowship, and promptly met the woman who would become his partner for life. Kathryn Newcomb — known to friends as Kitty — was beautiful, sharp as a tack, a great cook, and drove a red car that evoked awe and envy in postwar America. The two shared both faith and a dauntless work ethic; it was upon these cornerstones that they built their family. They raised two well-rounded, successful children while remaining dedicated to both their church and their jobs. The trustworthy tenet of Kal’s youth held fast: he was doing his part, and God was doing the rest.
Kal’s approach to his career in the Small Business Administration was flexible , fueled by his desire for challenge and purpose. He wanted his work to be meaningful, truly a boon to the American people. While he became an authority in anti-trust matters, aiming to promote free enterprise and help provide a level playing field for American business owners, he eschewed advancement for its own sake. He declined offers to rise in the ranks when they did not provide sufficient opportunity to serve the people he felt so strongly beholden to represent. He took assignments that no one else wanted, about which he knew little; these afforded him the opportunity for research that fed and energized his mind.
But it wasn’t just his mind that Kal kept healthy. When a newfound love of his wife’s cooking saddled him with a few excess pounds, he and Kitty resolved to cut fried foods out of their diet and to make a point of consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables and proteins; it’s a resolution that stuck, and Kal has managed to stay below 140 pounds ever since while still enjoying Kitty’s culinary prowess. Moreover, at a time when running for its own sake was a laughable oddity, Kal jogged. He regularly forewent elevators for the stairs, walked in lieu of driving. His early commitment to physical activity, forged on track and field teams in his youth, remained rigorous throughout his life. Even at 100, with every conceivable excuse to rest on his laurels, Kal is a regular at the gym. Three days a week, he runs on the treadmill, boxes, does isometric exercise and lifts weights. He was recently asked to throw out the first pitch for the Flying Squirrels’ Military Appreciation night, for which he has been intensely training. He is determined to increase his shoulder mobility to the point that he can pitch to the catcher’s mitt while standing on the mound, refusing to be cut any slack due to his age.
Today, Kal finds himself busier than ever. His birthday weekend had him juggling out-of-town visitors, a church celebration, and drama club rehearsals. Undaunted by this stringent schedule, he welcomed the opportunity to begin his hundred-and-first year amongst friends and family.
Recent studies have proven that Kal’s holistic approach to wellness is not only good for the body but beneficial to the brain. Not surprising, when you encounter the remarkable memory and intellect of this man firsthand. The Alzheimer’s Association encourages a “six-pillared approach” to preventing loss of brain function: regular exercise, social engagement, healthy diet, mental stimulation, quality sleep, and stress management. Clearly, the lifestyle Kal has maintained these 100 years is ample testament to this theory.
Above and beyond the science, though, is Kal’s determination to remain positive in light of life’s challenges. Over the years, he has maintained a kind and optimistic demeanor in spite of high tension situations. Come gunfire, government work and the everyday challenges of raising a family, he has weathered life’s storms and emerged radiantly, insistently happy. When asked how he manages to accomplish that, Kal explains that, rather than seeing the proverbial glass either half full or half empty, he asks himself how he can fill the glass up. I would argue that, if we do nothing else to improve our own wellness, we can all take that piece of advice to heart. The world would be so much a better place for it.
- “Relaxation: Surprising Benefits Detected” by Daniel Goleman, 1986. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/13/science/relaxation-surprising-benefits-detected.html?pagewanted=all
- “Using Progressive Relaxation to Minimize Stress,” by Deane Alban. https://bebrainfit.com/progressive-muscle-relaxation-stress/
- “Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease,” by Melinda Smith, et. al. 1997. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia/alzheimers-and-dementia-prevention.htm
Sarah Griffin is communication coordinator for Lakewood, a LifeSpire of Virginia continuing care retirement community in Richmond’s west end. To learn more about Lakewood and the exceptional lifestyle we offer, call 804-740-2900 or email Donna Buhrman, Lakewood’s marketing director.