"She is a goer!" Alsten's daughter, Marilyn Terrian, agreed when I called and said I'd heard that her mother was thriving. Terrian joined us for our meeting, which took place five weeks before Alsten's big birthday.
Both women looked decades younger than their ages, and they had other things in common: well-coiffed silver hair, tasteful jewelry, attractive clothes. Terrian was plump and jolly and effusive, while her mother seemed more birdlike and unobtrusive. She'd been residing in Beaumont Village for just over two years.
Before that, the daughter explained, Alsten had lived in a little house in Sun City, Arizona. She'd been getting along fine there. "I really could have stayed by myself for another year or so," the older woman commented in a mild tone. She still felt competent driving; at 97 she had renewed her license for five more years. But Terrian had fretted that her mother shouldn't be so far from family members, so she persuaded her to move. "If I had left my home in Arizona, I would have cried my eyes out! But not her," Terrian said with admiration. "She just said, 'You have to adapt to new changes.' And she has. She absolutely loves it here. When I drop her off, she says, 'I feel like I'm going home.' "
"Yeah," Alsten concurred. "I got accustomed to it pretty quick. I like it."
I could understand why. Beaumont Village shatters the rest-home stereotypes of bleak corridors, bad smells, and drooling, demented dotards. It might be mistaken for an upscale college dorm, one with snug, inviting lounges. Alsten lives in the "independent living" section, in a cozy one-bedroom apartment equipped with its own kitchen, although she usually eats in the dining hall.
"Mother is very sociable," Terrian explained. But she's not the type to go up and start chatting with a stranger. Terrian is. "When I was moving her in here, this gal started heading for the room across the hall." Terrian introduced the two older women, "and they became very, very close friends." Alsten has since gotten to know many other residents.
The New England Centenarian Study researchers have come to believe that at least part of the secret of reaching 100 is having the right genes. One of the strongest pieces of evidence is that extreme longevity seems to cluster in certain families. But that hasn't been the case for Alsten. Her father was in his 80s when he died, and her mother didn't live past 68. Her only brother passed away at 82. Her other daughter died at 59. "I have no idea," Alsten responded when I asked why she thought she had lived as long as she had. But her daughter thought several factors exerted an influence.
For one thing, "We come from a family that just gets along great. You know how in some there's a lot of dissension and fighting? Well, we've always had a very calm family. And my kids absolutely adore my mother. So does my husband." Terrian also cited her mother's easygoing disposition.
"I had to be easygoing," Alsten interjected with a tiny smile. "I took care of my totally blind mother-in-law for 25 years. She lived with us."
"She had the patience of a saint, my father always said. 'What your mother did for me most people wouldn't do for their own mother,' " Terrian quoted him, adding, "Her outlook on life is great. Like, if she does get a pain, she says, 'I thank God I didn't get it 20 years ago.' Or she's always saying things could be worse..."
"You don't have to look very long either to see so many that are really bad off," Alsten said.
Terrian pointed out that her mother hadn't escaped firsthand experience with tragedy. One of her grandsons (Terrian's son) was murdered nine years ago while working at a branch of the Price Club. And, "Her first husband burned to death," Terrian disclosed.
"That was terrible to go through," Alsten acknowledged with a nod. "Years back, you laid up your cars in the winter. And he was off working on the car in the garage, and he had a little stove in there to keep warm. And he grabbed a can of gasoline instead of kerosene to light the stove."
"My sister was only four. The neighbors got her out," Terrian added. But Alsten's husband died of his injuries.
This happened in upper Michigan, where Alsten grew up. After the accident, a family acquaintance "befriended Mother and helped her, and then they ended up getting married." This man later became the head of the Teamsters union in the Upper Peninsula. With him Alsten conceived Terrian, who recalls that her mother was a storybook housewife. "She always got up early and did all her housework. Then about four o'clock, she'd put a new clean dress on. And of course they wore aprons in those days. She got dinner on. She sat and read the paper. And then she looked nice when my dad came home, and she had time for him at night. She had a little schedule."
Alsten was more than five years older than Arnold, her second husband, but she says she never could hide her age. "He always boasted about it," she says. "He thought he had everything planned out. He said, 'Okay, you're five years older than I am. Women live longer than men. So we'll probably both go about the same time.' "
Arnold retired at 57, and in 1968, the couple moved to San Diego County, where both daughters had settled. The senior Alstens lived in a trailer park in Santee for 16 years that were golden indeed, Alsten attests. She felt as good then as she had in her 20s. She and her husband traveled throughout the United States and even ventured on one trip into Mexico. For 23 years, they never missed spending their summers in Michigan. "We'd leave about the first of May and come back in October. And we had this little mobile home that was our place there, and we were all with old friends." When I asked Alsten what was her favorite time in her entire life, she cited this period, when she was in her 70s.