5 Lessons From My 102-Year-Old Grandmother


In celebration of National Older American’s Month, today’s post honors my grandmother, Patty Mahoney, a woman of independence and ingenuity, who had a strong commitment to community, and lived for 102 years. In homage to my grandmother, and others like her, I’m going to introduce you to her and share some of the lessons that she taught me about the beauty and grace of aging. While I’m at it, I might even smash a few stereotypes about growing older.

In collaboration with SCAN Health Plan, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit Medicare Advantage plans, serving more than 200,000 members in California. #GatherAndShareWithSCAN

Last week the good folks at SCAN Health Plan launched their stages:100 over 100 campaign to honor and highlight some of SCAN’s centenarian members. They invited me to share about one of my older family members, and I was thrilled to accept. This is some of Patty Mahoney’s story.

First, for clarification, I became Patty’s granddaughter by marriage. I’ve simply claimed her as my own, whether that’s usually allowed or not. My husband knew her for much longer, of course, but I still had the honor of getting to know her during her late 90 and early 100’s, and my husband says it’s ok for me to claim her as my own. I am quite fond of telling stories about her.

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Grandmother Wisdom

Here are just some of the lessons I learned from her.

#1 Resilience

Despite living through two World Wars, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, Civil Unrest in the 60’s, the Energy Crisis, the Dot Com Bust and the Great Recession, Grandma never seemed to stop moving forward. It would be wrong to say she never worried, but she got up every day, and, after putting her shoes on and feeding the neighborhood cat, she got down to her daily business.

#2 Lifetime Learning

Patty Mahoney was 100% Finnish and proud of it. Her very Irish sounding name came from grandpa, but she only exploited that on St Patrick’s Day. She heard Finnish in the home as a small child, but never studied it formally. So, she studied it informally throughout her life, reading, practicing, and writing.

She didn’t fit many stereotypes for grandmas, few probably really do. She was a Tinkerer, or maybe the more modern word is Maker. She never stopped looking for solutions to problems in fabric, wood or metal. She was a master seamstress, and I mean a master.

She also seemed to have modified nearly every tool, and every electrical or mechanical device she ever had in her home. Whether tinkering with the TV antenna for better reception, or the handle of her drill for a better grip, she always kept her toolbox handy and was unafraid to use it.

Grandma trained and worked as a registered nurse until retirement, but I suspect if she were headed to college today, she may have chosen mechanical engineering instead. Either way, she would have excelled.

She never stopped trying new things, she liked to stretch her mind. At one point, in her 80’s I think, she started writing stories just for the fun of it. Short, romantic novels about sailors in exotic, faraway places and such. When I had a chance to read them 20 years later, they were sometimes flawed in plot and structure. I seem to recall, too, blushing more than once when skimming them over, as she didn’t shy away from some of the more intimate details of her characters’ relationships.

But none of that mattered, because by writing she was simply stretching her mind, and so she wasn’t striving for perfection, and she didn’t apologize for any of it.

#3 Independence

She drove a Ford Mustang in the 1960’s and early 70s, a Dodge Dart Swinger in the late 70’s and 80’s, and a four-wheel, electric cart with an overhead shade she built herself with a tall orange flag swinging from the back in the 90’s and 2000’s. While still in her 70’s, for exercise, she used my husband’s childhood sting-ray bicycle to ride figure eights in her apartment building’s garage while waiting for her laundry to finish.

In her 80’s and 90’s, most of what her family knew of her busy daily life came by way of status reports from others. She didn’t spend a lot of time giving the play-by-play, but folks from all over town would stop and say, “I saw your grandma up at the library,” or “at the grocery store,” or, “at the post office.”

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#4 Commitment to Community

After a full career as a nurse, she stayed active in the Finlandia Foundation and supported their music and academic scholarships. Well into her 80’s, as a volunteer for the literacy council, she met with adult students, one on one, to teach them to read and write.

She would pack up a book bag, hop on her electric cart, and make her way down to the city library each week to meet her students. She took the commitment as seriously as any job. Many of her pupils were new immigrants, and I suspect that made it even more important to her because her parents were immigrants once, too.

#5 Nutrition and Health

She worked to stay healthy. Grandma Mahoney began drinking green tea every morning three decades before it became fashionable. She kept her eye on her cholesterol, ate vegetables and fruit with every meal, took her thyroid medicine, and ate one ranger cookie per day. She read every issue of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter from cover to cover.

These are just some of the lessons I learned from Grandma Mahoney: resilience, lifetime learning, independence, commitment to community, nutrition and health. But beyond that, she taught me that when we give our older family members the time and attention they deserve, there is a unique form of beauty and grace in aging for us to discover.

Do you have a 100-year-old family member? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to check out the stages: 100 over 100 campaign for more inspiring stories, like the ones below.

Learn more about stAGES following #SCANstages, #SCAN100over100 and #GatherAndShareWithSCAN in social media, visiting the stages: 100 over 100 website or following SCAN on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

SCAN health plan logo

Thanks to the great folks at SCAN for making this post possible. Since its founding in 1977, SCAN has been a mission-driven organization dedicated to keeping seniors healthy and independent. That’s a great thing.

Silvia Martinez
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