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HEALTH

Chocolates, fan mail and gossip magazines: How France’s ‘super-centenarians’ live

France today counts around 40 super-centenarians - people over the age of 110. Good genes, nutrition and a positive attitude are key to living a long life, they say.

Chocolates, fan mail and gossip magazines: How France's 'super-centenarians' live
France counts more than 30,000 people over the age of 100. What are the keys to long life? (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

Her 118th birthday wish is “to die soon”. But in the meantime, Lucile Randon, better-known as “Sister Andre”, always keeps her door open for any visitor who might want to say hello.

Sister Andre is the oldest-known woman in France and Europe, and the second-oldest in the world after Kane Tanaka, a 119-year-old who lives in Japan.

She was born in Ales, southern France, on February 11, 1904, the year that New York opened its first subway, the Tour de France had only been run once and World War I was still a decade away.

In her room in a retirement home in the southern city of Toulon, Sister Andre has a single bed, a Virgin Mary statue and a radio which she never turns on anymore. The outside world, she says, is too stressful.

Most of the time she sits in her wheelchair, her head tilted to one side, her blind eyes shut.

Is she praying, thinking or napping? It’s hard to say. But when she speaks, her voice is present and her recollections vivid.

Her daily routine starts at 7 am when she is woken up and taken to breakfast, before being wheeled to morning mass which she, always dressed in her nun’s habit, never misses.

‘He’s charming’

“It’s awful that I depend on others for everything I do,” said Sister Andre, who worked full-time until the late 1970s and took care of other, often younger, home residents until she was 100.

Lucile Randon, 117, is France and Europe's oldest woman.

Lucile Randon, 117, is France and Europe’s oldest woman. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

“I’m happy when I have company,” she said — especially that of David Tavella, a staffer at the home that she has been living in for a decade, and her favourite companion.

“He’s charming,” she said, grasping his hand.

Tavella also acts as her press agent, fielding interview requests from reporters, sifting through the many boxes of chocolates sent by admirers, and checking her post.

Among her letters are handwritten New Year’s wishes for 2022 sent by Emmanuel Macron — who is the 18th French president in Sister Andre’s lifetime — which he signed off with “Yours very respectfully”.

Most centenarians are found in the world’s so-called blue zones where people live longer than average: They are in Okinawa in Japan, on the Italian island of Sardinia, the Greek island of Ikaria, the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica and in the Californian city of Loma Linda.

France, although no blue zone, was still home to the world’s oldest person with certified birth records, Jeanne Calment, who lived in Provence, dying in 1997 in Arles aged 122.

The man presumed to be the oldest in France also calls the south of the country home. Andre Boite is one of the very few male super-centenarians, a term defined as living beyond 110 years.

At 111, Boite still lives in his own home, likes wearing three-piece suits and stays away from reporters.

In 2015 there were half a million people over 100 in the world, with the UN saying this figure could grow to 25 million by the end of the century.

France alone has 30,000 centenarians compared with only 200 in 1950, according to statistics institute Insee, with some 40 of them 110 or older.

‘That’s not young’

Among them is Hermine Saubion who, when reminded of her age, says: “That’s old, that’s not young, I’m holding up.”

But when she wakes up from a nap in her wheelchair at the retirement home canteen in Banon, in the foothills of the Alps, her face lights up with a smile, and she looks attentively at her visitor.

Hermine Saubion, 110, talks with another French care home resident.

Hermine Saubion, 110, talks with another French care home resident. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

Saubion has no specific illness, but her body has gone immobile, and she is almost deaf, picking up only the occasional word, which isolates her from her surroundings.

Yet, “if we leave her alone in one place for too long, she protests loudly”, said Julien Fregni, a carer here.

Saubion, who is from Marseille and became a resident in the home two years ago, said she never expected that she and her sister Emilienne, who is 102, would live this long.

Centenarians such as Sister Andre and Hermine Saubion often get by without pharmaceutical drugs, which is “probably one of the secrets of their longevity,” said Sister Andre’s doctor, Genevieve Haggai Driguez.

“Nothing can touch her”, the doctor said of Sister Andre, whose physical shape she calls “absolutely incredible”.

Sister Andre herself puts her resilience down to the fact that she got through the Spanish flu, a deadly wave of influenza in 1918, unharmed.

She may be on to something: Researchers have observed that people born before the Spanish flu have better resistance to Covid than those born later.

‘We’re waiting’

Nearby, in a retirement home in Valreas in Provence, lives Aline Blain, a 110-year-old retired teacher.

Known to be sometimes bossy and sometimes sweet, Blain likes to read Paris Match, a celebrity magazine.

Aline Blain, 110, reads a magazine with her daughter Monique, in southern France.

Aline Blain, 110, reads a magazine with her daughter Monique, in southern France. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

Her daughter Monique, 76, comes almost every day to look after her mother who says those visits are “the most important thing for me”.

She is among the lucky ones. Many people this old have nobody to share their life’s memories with, because most friends and family of their generation are already gone.

Their own death, meanwhile, rarely holds any taboos for the super-centenarians.

“We’re waiting. We’re waiting for the end, for death. It will come,” said Saubion.

Sister Andre even admits to a certain impatience. “To be alone all day with the pain is no fun,” she said, but: “God is not hearing me, he must be deaf.”

Scientists haven’t uncovered all the secrets for a long life, but they have some idea of what it takes.

“Longevity goes hand-in-hand with material wealth, and with democracy, specifically social democracy,” said Jean-Marie Robine, a demographer and gerontologist at Inserm, a biomedical research institute.

Nutritional factors play a big role, he said, with the Japanese diet of fish and vegetables found to foster longevity, just like the vegetable-based Mediterranean diet.

“We’re not certain whether these diets are truly beneficial, but we have no doubt that others, such as French fries, charcuterie and cabbage are not that good,” he said.

‘Find great love’

While good genes play a part, healthy living seems to be fundamental for anybody hoping to grow this old.

“Jeanne Calment ticked all the boxes for longevity, her lifestyle was flawless,” said Catherine Levraud, head of the geriatric ward at Arles hospital.

“She started smoking at 25, but just one little cigarillo per day, and a small glass of port in the evening. She avoided all excesses.”

Psychological factors, such as people’s general attitude towards life, are also crucial.

“We know that an optimistic outlook has a direct link to the mechanics of the immune system,” said Daniela S. Jopp, a professor for the psychology of aging at Lausanne university in Switzerland.

In her research into German and American centenarians, she found that they were often extroverts, charismatic, at ease in social situations, passionate about something, goal-oriented and able to find adaptation strategies when dealing with problems.

Perhaps there’s also another factor: Coquettishness.

Hermine Saubion always insists on pretty hairstyles, such as the two little buns she calls her “devil’s horns”, while Aline Blain demands dresses and matching cardigans.

And this is how Sister Andre sums up her formula for successful life: “Find great love and don’t compromise on your needs.”

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TRAVEL NEWS

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

With travel opening up, many people are planning trips to France over the next few months, but the Covid pandemic has not gone away. Here are your questions answered on testing, isolation and medical treatment if you do fall sick while on holiday.

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

Travel rules

Covid-related travel rules have mostly been relaxed now but you will still need to show proof of being fully vaccinated at the French border. If you are not vaccinated you will need to show a negative Covid test – find the full breakdown of the rules HERE.

Testing

Once in France if you develop symptoms or you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive you will need to get a Covid test.

The good news is that testing is widely available in France, both for residents and tourists.

The easiest way to get a test is head to a pharmacy, most of which offer the rapid-result antigen test on a walk-in basis Tests are available to everyone who wants one, there is no need to fulfill any set criteria.

For full details on how to get a test, and some handy French vocab, click HERE.

The difference for tourists is that you will have to pay for your test, while residents get their costs reimbursed by the French state health system.

In the pharmacy you may be asked for your carte vitale – this is the health card that residents use to claim refunds. As a tourist you won’t have the card – you can still get the test, you will just need to pay for it. Costs vary between pharmacies but are capped at €22 for an antigen test or €54 for a PCR test.

Isolation

If your test is positive you are legally required to isolate, but how long your isolation period is depends on the your vaccination stats – full details HERE.

Treatment

For most fully-vaccinated people without underlying health conditions the symptoms of Covid are fairly mild, but if you do become ill, here’s how to access medical help while in France.

Pharmacy – one of the first things you will notice about France is that pharmacies are everywhere, just look out for the green cross. As well as selling over-the-counter medication, pharmacies all have at least one fully-qualified pharmacist on the staff who can offer medical advice. 

Take advantage of pharmacists – they train for at least six years so they’re very knowledgeable and they’re easy to access by simply walking into the shop. In tourist areas it’s likely that they will speak English. Pharmacists can also signpost you to a nearby doctor if you need extra help.

Doctors – if you need to see a doctor, look out for a médecin généraliste (a GP or family doctor). There is no need to be registered with a doctor, simply call up and ask for an appointment if you need one. If you have a smartphone you can use the medical app Doctolib to find a généraliste in your area who speaks English. You will need to pay for your consultation – €25 is the standard charge and you pay the doctor directly using either cash or a debit card.

You may be able to claim back the cost later on your own health/travel insurance depending on the policy.

Ambulance – if you are very sick or have difficulty breathing you should call an ambulance – the number is 15. All non-residents are entitled to emergency treatment in France, whether or not you have insurance, but if you are admitted or have treatment you may need to pay later.

READ ALSO Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Paxlovid – several readers have asked whether the Covid treatment drug Paxlovid is available in France. It was licenced for use in February 2022 and is available on prescription from pharmacies, mainly for people with underlying health conditions or an impaired immune system. You can get a prescription from a medical practitioner.

The drug is reimbursed for French residents, but as a tourist you will have to pay.

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