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100-year-old sisters share 4 tips for staying mentally sharp as you age—and they don’t say crossword puzzles

Centenarian Ruth Sweedler has impressive recall and can make good conversation about what’s going on in the world. Over the years, strangers and family members alike have commented on it.

“My doctor loves to talk to me,” Sweedler says. “He’d say, ‘You’re amazing.’ And I’d say, ‘Because I’m old?’ And he’d say, ‘No! Because you’re sophisticated.’”

Sweedler, who lives in a retirement home in Connecticut, is proud of the way she’s retained her faculties: “I don’t talk like an old lady.”

It probably helps that she doesn’t think of herself that way: “I don’t feel that I’m old,” says Sweedler, who turned 103 in December.

Her sister Shirley Hodes, whose independent living facility is about 800 miles away by car, in North Carolina, echoes those sentiments. “I’m not that old!” says Hodes, who’s 106. “I don’t feel old, that’s the truth.” She’s still excited to learn new things, especially from books.

“I never did crossword puzzles,” Hodes says, but “I always did a lot of reading. That’s the best thing for your mind.”

The sisters share their best advice for staying sharp as you age:

1. Work
Sweedler “loved to work,” she says. She was an amateur actress in local theater productions and stayed “very active” in both her synagogue and in various Jewish organizations.

“Not that I’m so religious,” she says. “But I’m aware that I’m Jewish, and I like being involved.” Once, as part of a lunch-and-learn study group at the synagogue, she read through the Hebrew Bible in six months.

When her two children were older, Hodes got a full-time job as a paraprofessional and a teacher’s aide. She stayed nearly 20 years and only retired at age 70. “I loved working at the high school,” she says.

An aptitude test had told her that she could have been a teacher herself. That would have been exciting. She would have been thrilled to be a journalist, too, she says, since “I always loved interviewing people.” Now she draws on those skills getting to know the other residents of her assisted living facility.

If you’re lucky enough to have work you enjoy, embrace it, she says: Being engrossed in what you do “is very important.”

It’s satisfying to “make full use of your talents,” she says, and “it makes life so much pleasanter.”

2. Connect
Both Hodes and Sweedler wax rhapsodic about the importance of family and especially a good marriage: “There’s nothing better,” Sweedler declares. “It’s so wonderful to love and be loved.”

“I’ve been very lucky. My husband was easy to get along with,” says Hodes. Up until he died, they had “a wonderful relationship.”

“The people you’re surrounded with, friends, relatives, family,” she adds, they have an outsized effect on you. “That’s what you’ll remember the most.”

Ruth Sweedler with family in 2019
Ruth Sweedler with family in 2019Photo by Ester Bloom
Although Sweedler’s husband, too, has passed away, other close relationships she has cultivated have lasted for decades. “I like to have friends. I love people.” The former president of her congregation still comes to visit her, she says, as does the rabbi.

Curiosity keeps your mind active and engaged, says Hodes. “Some people aren’t interested in anybody but themselves,” and she’s not like that. “I was always so interested in hearing people’s stories, backgrounds. They’re full of surprises.”

“People like to talk about themselves,” she adds. “Just give them a chance to open up and remember what they tell you.”

3. Learn
The entertainment Sweedler favors transports her or presents her with challenging ideas. When she was younger, she loved going to the theater with her friends. “We saw wonderful plays!”

Nowadays, she says, “I don’t watch television, except for news. I watch PBS at night.” Her favorite TV show is “60 Minutes” on CBS.

And “I love reading!” she says. “That’s my passion.”

People like to talk about themselves. Just give them a chance to open up and remember what they tell you.
Shirley Hodes
AGE 106
“Older people can get absorbed in themselves when you have ailments and such. That can make it hard to have an open mind,” says Hodes.

Hunger for knowledge led her to audit classes at the local college as soon as she retired. Though she had to sit in the first row in order to be able to see and hear the instructor, she aced the class.

Art and literature have broadened her horizons as well. “I have some wonderful books,” she says: Most recently, she’s been listening to nonfiction audiobooks about elephants, the Jews of Salonika, and the U.S. opera singer Jessye Norman. “They’re quite different from my background,” and that makes the content exciting: “There’s always so much to learn!”

4. Appreciate
Hodes never had the opportunity to go to college when she was young. It’s one of her few regrets. She and Sweedler were the youngest of eight children in a cramped apartment; their parents were immigrants who had to scrape to get by. “We had to be careful because there were so many of us,” she says.

Still, she recognizes that “you can’t have everything.” And “when you have the important things in life, you have to realize it.”

Sisters Shirley Hodes and Ruth Sweedler, circa 1923
Sisters Shirley Hodes and Ruth Sweedler, circa 1923
“My secret? I’m a lucky person. Although I’ve had illnesses and problems, I’ve overcome them,” she says. “I’m in decent health, enjoying health, thankful for a wonderful life. That sustains me and keeps me going.”

These days, Sweedler can’t travel. Though she used to walk several miles every day, her mobility is limited enough that she can’t even consistently get outside. She wishes that her body were as strong as her mind.

But she is grateful for what she has. “Luckily, I still can read,” she says, “and I read wonderful stuff.”

Hodes is of the same mind. If you want to live a long time in good shape, “disposition doesn’t hurt,” she points out. “I am satisfied. I have been blessed.”

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