On a typical day, Edward Palkot tools around in his car throughout Garden City, his home since 1939. He’ll run errands to local shops, or stop for lunch on Seventh Street at Leo’s Restaurant and Bar, one his favorite eateries. At home, the former teacher and retired human resources director loves checking emails from friends and family on the computer. Nights are sometimes spent on the dance floor with the lady friend he’s been seeing for eight years. And in warmer weather he has a weekly date with three friends playing nine holes at Eisenhower Park.
Palkot’s activities might sound ordinary, but he’s doing them at an extraordinary age: In August, he turned 103 years old. Mentally and physically, Palkot is still the picture of health. In fact, he is one of four centenarians featured on the cover of “Aging Gracefully: Portraits of People Over 100” (Chronicle Books, $29.95). The coffee-table book by Frankfurt, Germany-based photographer Karsten Thormaehlen debuts March 7 and celebrates 52 centenarians the world over.
A current saying is “100 is the new 80,” but judging by Palkot, it could be the new 70. Thormaehlen heard about Palkot — the only subject in the book from Long Island — from his son, Greg Palkot, a Fox Channel news correspondent based in London. The younger Palkot had seen Thormaehlen’s pictures of a 101-year-old woman at the National Portrait Gallery and emailed the photographer information about his father.
“He’s the best-looking, most handsome American guy in the book, don’t you think?” Thormaehlen says of Edward Palkot. “But he really was the most active centenarian I met.”
Though Palkot says he “never gave it a thought” about making it to 100, let alone 103, he credits his longevity to a positive attitude and maybe his place of birth. “It may sound facetious, but I grew up in Pittsburgh, where the steel mills were belching forth all that smog and smoke, and we were drinking water from the polluted river,” he says. “I think I built up so much resistance I was able to fight off all of the common diseases.”
Obviously, a good sense of humor is an asset for hitting 100, but other factors, notably medical advances since 1900 and genetics, have played a factor in the rising number of people achieving that milestone, says Dr. Tom Perls, founding director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University. Equally key, as Palkot observes, is maintaining a positive attitude.
“We’re born with certain personality traits,” says Perls, who is also a professor of medicine and geriatrics at the university. “In the studies we’ve done, centenarians score low in neuroticism. Stress can increase the chances of diseases such as cardiac arrest and stroke. Centenarians have learned how to let go of stress.”
What’s in a number?
Ruth Dolgow, who turned the big 1-0-0 on Feb. 1, may walk a little slowly — even with the aid of a cane — but that doesn’t keep her from being active. Though she lives on her own at the North Shore Towers in Floral Park, she enjoys her weekly Saturday dates for shopping and lunch with her daughter, Bonnie D. Graham, 68, of Great Neck, with whom she also hosts the public-access cable talk show “Senior Moments: The Happy Ones” from Lake Success. To mark Dolgow’s 100th birthday, Graham did a “This Is Your Life”-style salute to her mom on the show, featuring friends, family, chocolate mousse cake and Champagne.
“As I was thinking about it, I realized it’s a whole century and I’m starting all over again,” says Dolgow, a retired nurse. “I said to myself, ‘Ruth, you’re going to be doing the same things at 100 as you were at 30, 40, 50. You’ll see your friends, you’ll play bridge, you’ll see your family. There’s no need to be scared. I’m my own psychologist.”
Dolgow also still plays the piano, and usually arrives early at a Yiddish studies club she belongs to at North Shore Towers so she can greet the other members as they arrive by tickling the ivories. Her love of people and making them feel happy fits right in with Perls’ findings from his studies.
“Very few of our centenarians are lonely,” says Perls. “They tend to be a gregarious bunch. They’re socially engaged, and being active is an important part of their vibrancy.”
Thormaehlen noticed similar traits as he was working on his portraits book: “I was surprised in the very beginning, when I started the project in 2006. But I learned very fast that you don’t become 100 years old if you do not have specific genetic preconditions, a certain constitution to deal with stress and anger, a way to see and live your life.”
A man of many words
Gregarious doesn’t begin to describe Kenneth P. Neilson, a retired teacher turned greeting card company owner from Hollis who turned 100 on Jan. 16. Neilson, who has written several books, including volumes on Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, loves to talk.
“I never apologize for that,” he says. “When you’re having a conversation, you are on one subject and then a word is dropped in that subject, which stimulates a whole new conversation, and I’m willing to go on with that.”
For years Neilson was coordinator for the Langston Hughes house in Harlem and in 1977 he established his company, All Seasons Art. In addition to greeting cards, the company provided an audience to African-American and Hispanic artists through a series of exhibitions, publications, concerts and theatrical productions.
Neilson, who lives with his son, Stephen, 66, is in the process of publishing a new book through All Seasons Art about all of the honors he’s received over the years, including one from former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. “It’s what I call my last book, but then I just thought of another one I want to do,” he says.
He rang in the second century of his life with a party at his local library surrounded by friends and family and a special cake inspired by his artistic sensibilities. “The cake had an insert of an artist’s palette with the brushes,” he says.
Neilson also regaled the crowd with this pearl of wisdom: “I’m in favor of the ego because it means ‘I.’ Then I warned them not to let anyone trample over your I.”
Do good, feel good
Doing good for others is also critical for staying young. Ask Arthur Seidman, who turns 100 on Feb. 28. Seidman, a World War II veteran who was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service in the Philippines, has been a volunteer at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset since 1995. He still drives from his home in Great Neck to the hospital, where he works 15 hours a week in the surgical waiting room, offering patients and their families equal doses of pre-surgical information and comfort. (Seidman also volunteers at the hospital’s Monter Cancer Center in New Hyde Park and serves on the auxiliary board as chairman for the Tribute Fund and the Car Raffle.)
“The rewarding part is talking to the people who are getting chemo,” Seidman says. “Many of them are dropped off and they’re alone and they want to talk. Thank God I still have the facility to tell war stories. I often joke around with them. I’ll say, ‘All the things I’m telling you I really forgot, but I’m making up some of it.’ ”
Seidman’s wit has also made him a hit with the ladies. After Lillian, his wife of 45 years, died in 1986, he began dating a woman he met in a bereavement group. They were together for 19 years until her death in 2006. He’s now dating someone who is in her early 80s and runs a risk-management business. A family party at her apartment is planned for Seidman’s special birthday, and then in March, Seidman has scheduled a cruise to the Caribbean.
Like so many centenarians, Palkot, Dolgow, Neilson and Seidman may not have expected to make it to 100. All are members of the Greatest Generation who lived through the Great Depression, World War II and other life-changing events, but they’re all happy to be able to enjoy the many innovations they’ve witnessed — from the birth of radio and television to the proliferation of computers and cellphones. And they’re all examples of how positive attitudes and staying active can be passports to reaching triple digits.
“I remember my mother had a scrubbing board for washing the clothes, and the ice man would come by,” Palkot says. “People talk about the good old days. Let me tell you, things are better now than they ever were.”