Ida, you’re my hero! At 97 years young you are doing things that I can only hope to do in the prime of my life. As Lisa Ling chronicles your life in Our America I watched in awe as you ran the 100 meter dash alongside 20 year olds while breaking your own record. Your ability to stay mobile and live independently sets you apart from the general population, and most certainly your age group. After learning about the tragedies you have suffered—your husband’s death when your daughter was just a child and the death of your two sons to drug-related incidents—I wondered how you found resilience. Most of all, I wondered what set your health and physical endurance apart from other seniors.
After seeing your story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a case study in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers that examines a community of Italian descent in Pennsylvania. Intrigued by an astounding low-level of disease, baffled researchers conducted a thorough analysis of the community. What they found led to even more confusion. This community didn’t follow the conventional healthy lifestyle patterns known to breed such a disease-free life. In fact, healthy diets weren’t apparent, obesity was prevalent, exercise was non-existent, smokers were common, and they ruled out any genetic rationale. What could make this community an outlier? Well, the researchers came to a peculiar discovery. This community’s unique health composition resulted from their physical and social environment which mirrored the village they descended from in Italy. Strong community bonds and extended family interactions translated into a level of happiness, health and well-being that is not as common in other communities.
As I think back to Lisa Ling’s Our America and recall the other seniors she profiles, I noticed how most of the seniors are not like Ida. On the contrary, many are in fragile states, some with dementia, others bedridden. Although some of these seniors are being cared for by their family members, I see something different in Ida’s life. I see the village of this Italian community. Shelly, Ida’s daughter, fulfilled a crucial role by introducing her mother to running, while Ida’s extended family and community serve as constants in her life.
At Informing Change, through our experience evaluating community health initiatives, we too have seen the value of building community to collectively improve health outcomes that go beyond regular doctor visits and exams. In this case, Shelly did that for Ida. Shelly designed a healthy environment for Ida where her age and physical location didn’t matter. As proven in a small town in Pennsylvania, this can be the healthiest attribute for any age.