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Purely Dominica

Purely Dominica

graceful dominican ladyYou’re young as you feel…Forever 16

How appropriate it is for me to be writing this post on the same Dominica is recognizing the elderly people around the island. 🙂

FAQ: Why is it that people in Dominica seem to grow old more gracefully and live longer than people elsewhere?

This is one of more frequently asked questions by Doctors and critics all around the world, and who are yet to understand what makes Dominicans to live so many years. Dominica boasts a remarkable concentration of very old people in good health and they’ve begun to arouse the interest of medical science.

Over the weekend I visited my Grandmother, who on June 12, 2008 turned 90 years, but looks like 70 – as you can see from the picture above. As always we had our usual conversation – but during this visit my keen interest was to find out more about my grandmother growing as a young lady. After a conservation spanning more than two hours with the strongest lady I know, and to cut a long story short – it all boils down to diet and lifestyle are clearly all-important but are there other factors at work here too: quality of life perhaps, the support of families, something in the genes even?

In recent years it’s become a common celebration where: birthday parties, often organized by a vast extended family, for yet another of the country’s citizens reaching the age of 100.

Below is an excerpt from an interview by BBC correspondent John Pickford with centenarian Violet Wilfreda, in his attempts in understanding longevity in Dominica.

A century and still batting

Violet Wilfreda Joseph had her 100th birthday party a few years ago. She was born in the last year of the 19th century when British colonial rule in Dominica had another 79 years to run. So how does it feel to wake up in the morning knowing you’re 108 years old? “Glad to see the day“, she told me, without a moment’s hesitation. Her mobility is restricted but she has good eyesight and hearing, an astonishingly unwrinkled face and still lives in her own modest wooden home in the centre of Roseau. Could she give me any clues as to how she’s lived so long?

For years she’s started the day with a glass of coconut water, a drop of gin and a banana, though since her 100th birthday her family has persuaded her to drop the gin. Fish is her favourite form of protein, especially fish heads (“I like sucking the bones“, she told me) and she’s always enjoyed Dominica’s rich diversity of tropical fruit and vegetables. And another important clue perhaps, she shares her home with three generations of her extended family, including several children. They always give her a kiss before they go to school. “They keep me young“, she said.

According to the Dominica Council on Aging, a charity which keeps records of the centenarians, there are currently 22 on the island in a total population of around 65,000, which is 3 times the average incidence of centenarians as in developed countries such as Britain and the United.

Dr Noel Boaz, an American professor of anatomy at the Ross Medical School in Dominica, has been researching the centenarians for the past 6 years. His findings so far suggest that the key to their longevity is diet and lifestyle, not genetics – who I agree with 110%.

According to Dr Boaz, Dominica is a mountainous island with its interior cloaked in dense rainforest. Roads were few until well into the 1960s, so when today’s elderly were young long distance walking on rough terrain was a necessity of everyday life, along with hard physical work. And their diet would have included natural products from the forest, herbs and herbal medicines, as well as that rich diversity of cultivated fruit and vegetables, almost all of it grown in their own gardens.

Not in so many words, but this was exactly what my grandma described to me in our conversation.

…but will it last?

It’s hard for me not to feel a surge of optimism in the presence of such people, but the story of Dominica’s remarkable centenarians like Violet Wilfreda Joseph, may not have an entirely happy ending. Dr Boaz doesn’t think the phenomenon will last more than another decade, and I can understand why – the lifestyle of younger Dominicans is changing rapidly.

Three American-style fast-food restaurants have recently opened in Roseau and with the help of TVs in every household, car ownership has risen to one in four of the population and farming is a last choice job for most young Dominicans.

But while living a pre-modern lifestyle will soon come to an end, the way things are going. I’m thankful to be able to have these long conversations with my grandma, because she gives me a glimpse of a way of life – poor in modernity but rich in wellbeing and human longevity.

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