How to Make It to Age 91: The Five P’s

By Neil Earle

HOWELL FAMILY (c. 1968) – Duncan is bottom far right with my mom on his right. Photo: Howell family Collection.

A recent chat with my 91-year-old and last surviving uncle, Mr. Duncan Howell, ended in his nimble mind handing me five points of surviving and (mostly) thriving through the life process.

His successful career that included serving as Assistant Deputy Minister of Health for his home province and later a senior accountant with the federal government sprang from humble but rock-solid origins. He was part of the accomplished Howell family of Carbonear in Newfoundland and Labrador and perhaps – the family conceded – the brightest of a bright lot. Our phone call led to his expostulating on these Five P’s as he called them. These were his semi-whimsical keys to longevity as well as to an active fulfilling life.

Pride: By this Dunc meant to take pride in what you do and what you stand for. He came from a family of 9 that followed their father, the saintly William F. Howell, in building a covered hockey rink in my home town in the depths of the Great Depression. The Jubilee Rink, finished in time for King George V’s 25th Jubilee in proudly monarchial Newfoundland, stood till the 1960s.

The Jubilee Rink in Carbonear was a source of hometown pride. Photo: Howell family Collection.

“The young folks must have something to do,” opined Billy Howell when his intelligent practical wife, Fanny, would wonder where the money was coming from to finish the project. But finish it they did and that sense of satisfaction in achievement rubbed off on Dunc and all the family. This entrepreneurial ethic set up the second P which was…

Passion: The Howell family exhibited a kind of unstoppable energy (and still do!) that could be exhilarating. This was epitomized for me as a youth when Aunt Alma would lead us on berry-picking expeditions when she returned with whirlwind force to Carbonear each summer and exhibited enough panache to convince all us idle youngsters to join her – even as we soon tired of the bending and sorting our straws from berries. Dunc was worthy heir of that “all or nothing” tradition of enjoying life to the full and exhibiting what Ecclesiastes enjoins as “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”

Builders William F. Howell and Fanny with daughter and friend in Toronto. Photo: Howell family Collection.

Piano: This was another Uncle Dunc forte along with his shrewd business and accounting skills that took him far. The whole Howell family were known for their musical exploits. My mom, closest to Dunc in the family hierarchy, played piano all around the town for events and served as Anglican organist for almost 35 years. Mom once related that Dunc was told by his musical instructors in St. John’s that he had gone as far as they could go in their curriculum. Dunc composed music and hymns for his local church “on the mainland” and the day my mom died he waited till the hour of her funeral to play a composition in her honor. An elegant touch. Even now his daughter is trying to get his songs copyrighted – continuing the tradition of this classy intelligent family!

Pills: I found this point quite refreshing as so many people today think they know more than their doctors and often complain about their medicines. I’ve got enough health problems of my own to know that we need advice and wise counsel, especially as we age. Seeking out wise counsel echoes Jesus’s dictate that “the sick need a physician” and this imperative has branched out to the wide-ranging health industry today. We have to use discernment, of course, but at certain times in our lives things break down in our bodies and we need extra help to compensate. My own doctor says I am slightly anemic so I take iron pills. That’s reasonable. So, good on Uncle Dunc for reinforcing the common-sense and eventually humble approach that got him to 91, which age he will exceed I have no doubt.

Peaceful Carbonear: Home of the Howells.

Prunes: That clever Howell sense of humor shows up here but – let’s face it – some old customs stick around for a reason. I was on a cross-country trip with my wife, Susan, when at a boring breakfast nook I took to reading the menu and noticed how prunes qualify as fruit and are a known clue to regularity. We all need three fruits a day so as my wife finished her dish it hit me what I’d been missing as a source of iron and energy all these years. This 91-year-old joshing offered a clue to Uncle Dunc’s basic emotional stability, his healthy Newfoundland way to laugh a bit at life, to enjoy the ride.

The very notion of the 5 P’s as a guide to longevity has an atmosphere of humor about it, the kind of intelligent gusto which Dunc and his siblings exhibited.

Hopefully some of it rubbed off on me. According to aging author Gail Sheehy I’m in my “Sage Seventies” now and already exhibit some of what she calls the “Uninhibited 80s” style and would look very much forward to “the Noble Nineties.”

Uncle Dunc has made it, as did my mom and dad and the rest of the family. That’s an encouraging prospect. So there you have it, friends: enjoy life, exhibit pride and passion and don’t forget those prunes.

With help from Howell relatives Chris and Lynda, Lydia, Elizabeth and Bob and Jack – thank you.