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Opinion: What I learned from Aunt Irma who lived to be 106

According to the 2010 census, the United States has more than 53,000 centenarians. There is much we can learn from those who live more than 100 years.

I learned a great deal from Aunt Irma, who recently passed away at 106. Aunt Irma is my wife’s aunt and also her stepmother. Let me explain. She was my wife’s aunt, because Irma was married to the brother of my wife’s father. She was also my wife’s stepmother, because my wife’s father married Aunt Irma after my wife’s mother passed away. Irma had been a widow for many years.

Irma’s full name is Irma Daniel Daniel Daniel. Let me explain again. Irma’s maiden name was Daniel, her first husband’s last name was Daniel and her second husband’s last name was Daniel.

Irma had strong opinions about lots of things and that characteristic didn’t change one iota as she aged. Irma taught me that one’s personality doesn’t change over time. You could not get Irma to do something she didn’t want to do, even as a centenarian. When she was in her early 100s, she was placed in a high-quality assisted living facility. She hated it. She fomented rancor among the residents about the quality of services and so was asked to leave — which is exactly want she wanted.

Irma was never reluctant to say what she thought. If she thought you had put on a few pounds, needed a haircut or hadn’t visited frequently enough, you’d hear about it. Not too long before her death, my daughter and her cousin visited Aunt Irma. At some point in the conversation, it came out that the two single women were 40. Irma, in her own inimitable way, asked them what they were waiting for in terms of marriage.

In the last years of her life, Irma lost her short-term memory. You could tell her something and, a minute later, she had no memory whatsoever of what you had said. However, from time to time, the “old Irma” would emerge. In one of our visits to see her in Bayonne, where she lived at home with the help of a wonderful 24-hour-a-day caregiver, she had recently been visited by her doctor of many years – Dr. Mutterperl. I commented that “Mutterperl” was a strange name. She instantly retorted that it was a peculiar name – not a strange name. With her quick response, Irma taught me not to assume, when you talk with someone who is suffering from short-term memory, that he or she will not have quite lucid moments.

Irma and her husband came to America in 1937 from Germany to escape the Nazis. She was one of the lucky ones who left before they came for her. She and her husband Norbert immigrated with very little. Through hard work, they built a small paper business. When Norbert passed away at an early age, Irma continued working into her mid-80s, first at a local dress shop and subsequently for many more years at a sundries store at Newark Airport. She was the stalwart of her family and unwavering in preserving her Jewish heritage, which was at the core of her being.

Irma was the ultimate survivor. Her life was a triumph over circumstances. It was a testament to value of family, determination and resilience. She taught all of us about the virtue inherent in doing the best you can with the cards that are dealt. We all will miss her deeply, but her memory will live on.

Before Irma, I had never had contact with a person in their 90s, let alone in their 100s. I had no idea that a person could be in good shape physically at that age. Up until a few years ago, interacting with Aunt Irma was no different than interacting with people who are in good shape in their early 80s. She was able to walk without help, was mentally and physically agile and extremely well-informed of world events. She even traveled to Israel and Cuba in her 90s. When she lost her short-term memory, I thought it would preclude dialogue between us. I was wrong.

I could jar Irma’s memory by asking her about paintings on her wall. She would recall in detail when she acquired each of them. In one case, I removed a painting and found a paper on the back that contained most of the information that Irma had conveyed to me. Her historic memory was almost photographic. Again, Irma taught me not to be so quick to abandon the possibilities of communicating with those grappling with severe short-term memory loss.

Irma once told me that the worst thing about getting old was that you lose all your friends. She was absolutely right. In the past few years, I’ve lost a number of friends who were in their 70s and 80s. The thought of losing more of them really frightens me.

The number of centenarians will grow dramatically in the years to come. Those like Irma, who have an incredibly devoted child, will pass away with dignity, which, fittingly, is how she lived her life.

Irwin Stoolmacher is president of Stoolmacher Consulting Group. To watch a video of Aunt Irma at 103, go to: