• Mary K. Armstrong

Staying Young

Gloria Steinem at 40 years old, smiling off camera

When I was in my forties and Gloria Steinem with her long blond hair and slim body was a spokesperson for feminists, someone famously approached her to say, "I can't believe you're 40." Steinem responded, "Oh no! This is what 40 looks like."

As a society, we've had to revise our view of aging. Steinem and a whole lot of other adults were maintaining their youthfulness much longer than their predecessors. These men and women knew the importance of nutrition and exercise for adults.

I had a similar reaction to Steinem's admirers when Jeannie Strong turned 90. Jeannie is an attractive, down-to-earth former nurse and mother whose husband, Don, was a military man with the Signals Corps. With their two girls, they spent summer on Wolfe Island where Don was known for his ability to swim long distances. It sounds like an idyllic life.

I asked Jeannie about her ability to stay young. She tells me she doesn't think about aging. She just gets on with her life. Both she and Don were always very health conscious. She has always exercised, and these days she can be seen on regular walks around downtown Kingston. Jeannie has a talent for reaching out to others. Even during this isolating time of social distancing, her warm eyes smile above her mask. She always has time for her neighbours and gives a warm welcome to anyone new to her community. If I had to guess what keeps her agile and active, I'd say it's the combination of attention to health and connectedness with others.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jeannie didn't have an easy start to life. By the time she was eight, both her parents had died of heart attacks, leaving eight children in the care of relatives and a big sister. Jeannie and three siblings were sent to an orphanage until relatives in Magdalen Island gave this little girl a home. Her new family supported Jeannie through nurses' training in New Glasgow. This event marks the time when her life really began to open up. Nurses' residence was a dream come true, with friends surrounding her like the large family she'd lost so long ago.

When Jeannie graduated, she joined the Armed Forces. She feels she was being guided by a higher power when she was posted to Kingston and met the man who would be her husband. This was Don, a career soldier and graduate of the Royal Military College. Don planned to stay in the army with the Signal Corps.

The couple married, and Jeannie once again found herself surrounded by "family" in the form of other young couples with children in the married quarters. With the arrival of her own two daughters, Jeannie had even more family around her. Life was evolving in some wonderful ways.

The Netherlands and Belgium were a long way from Magdalen Island, and that's where Jeannie and Don found an exciting life once their girls were on their own. There, as part of NATO, Don met with other army experts to share areas of specialty. Jeannie and Don actually got to live in these countries, albeit in the suburbs where isolation in a foreign country often meant loneliness.

Don is gone now and the girls have along since been independent, but Jeannie still creates a homey atmosphere for her neighbours. Above her mask, her eyes soften when she sees you, showing that it's possible to remain calm and considerate of one another even during the pandemic. And if you happen to be downtown, you may see Jeannie on her walk!