By Anne Stanton
As the weather grows colder and the days a little shorter, Sue Garthe
offers this wisdom for getting old with your body intact. Go outside
and walk every single day -- no matter if the sun is shining or the
rain is pouring down in blinding sheets.
Garthe is out the door by 6 a.m., pulling on her tennis shoes a few
minutes after her alarm goes off. She missed walking only four days
this past winter, and thats because black ice covered the streets.
Garthe just celebrated her 90th birthday in near perfect healthas far
as she knows. She never goes to the doctor for check-ups. For years,
her family had no health insurance, so she always took special care to
keep her weight down and to exercise. Now she has Medicare, but still
Theyll just find something wrong with you and ask you to come in
again. My parents never saw a doctor and they lived to be 95.
Garthe has been walking all her life, even while raising six children.
As a girl living outside of Cedar, she walked 5½ miles each way to
school, except for the coldest winter months when the school kids
would board with the Catholic nuns. It was a time when there was no
electricity, no furnace, no phones, and no cars.
We had 13 kids and we ate what we could afford and what people gave
us. Most of it came off the farm, even the ground wheat. Its the best
flour for pies and bread. We had fresh bread every day, she said.
Garthe, who now lives in Traverse City, still eats the same diet of
meat, potatoes, fruit and vegetables, along with homemade pies and
bread, all in small portions. For snacks? Whatever goes with a
Besides walking, Garthe cleans her extremely tidy two-story house,
hangs up her laundry on the clothesline, and plays golf every week,
weather permitting. Use it or lose it, thats my motto!
She also enjoys a daily cocktail of vodka and orange juice and swing
dances at the Hayloft, where she allows herself two cocktails. Her
stress level is low, since she lives comfortably on Social Security
dividends. When I was younger, we poured every extra dollar into
paying off the mortgage.
Garthes husband died four years ago, but she has the constant company
of her adopted son, Peter, nearby family members, and several friends
who are a couple decades her junior. She used to go to church every
day, but now attends just once a week.
Does she still drive?
Not since yesterday, she quipped.
IM A FATALIST
Garthe shrugs off stories of cancer survivors who credit their annual
mammograms, physicals and colonoscopies for detecting problems early
and allowing them to live decades longer.
Im a fatalist. Im going to die when my day comes up, she said.
If you press her on her health problems, shes initially tight lipped
on the matter. When people ask me how I am, I tell them, I am. I
dont have enough time to talk about my aches and pains.
Seventy years ago, she almost died from double viral pneumonia and
spent three months in the hospital. Nowadays, she has an occasional
leg cramp and near constant pain in her hands from arthritis. She also
had some skin cancer on her face, which was removed, and cataract
surgery, which caused a hemorrhage in her left eye, resulting in a
periodic flare-up in one eye. She claims her eyesight gets better with
age. She takes absolutely no medicine, except for the occasional
Aleve. Her cure is to stay busy. Hard work never killed anyone, she
said. If I take something for pain, it will just pop somewhere else.
I think everyone has to go through pain. I really do. I dont think
about it, so it doesnt hurt.
Garthe has strong opinions on health care and laments that most
Americans would rather take a pill than take a walk. With the
controversy raging these days about Medicare, she feels its time for
common sense. She was outraged to read a report last week that a new
$93,000 drug treatment only adds four months to the life of patients
with incurable prostate tumor. Medicare will cover the treatment cost.
She thinks the controversy over death panels should have sparked a
more serious discussion: how much money is spent to briefly extend the
life of someone with an incurable disease? Instead, the politicians
dodged the issue.
I think its an outrage to use that money when it could go to help
someone in real need, she said. I think seniors are vote-getters.
All you hear about is health care for seniors. I say let them take
care of the kids first. There are so many of them who dont go
walking. A lot are obese or heavy at least. A lot continue to smoke,
and complain that they should be able to smoke. Its almost criminal
that the seniors favorite pastime is to keep doctor appointments.
She waved toward the house across the street.
The ambulance just took my neighbor twice to the hospital today. He
weighs 450 pounds.
HELPING THE HOMELESS
Lest you think that Garthe is hard-hearted, you need only hear about
her walks where she strikes up conversations with homeless people, who
are often climbing out of sleeping bags about the same time walkers
and runners are getting out. She used to sit on a bench and talk to a
homeless man, who drove the Clinch Park train. She didnt see him for
a few days, and learned that he was found dead on the beach of Lake
Michigan where he often slept.
There was a Thanksgiving, about five years ago when my husband was
still alive, I was out walking. It was so cold and windy, and when I
got down a block or so, I met a man who asked me how to get to a
street in Williamsburg. He told me hed been incarcerated since
August; he had on shorts, no cap, no gloves, no nothing, and they just
released him from jail, and he didnt know where he was going.
So Garthe took him home and gave him a cup of coffee, along with a
winter coat, hat, and gloves. Her husband, now deceased, also gave him
a ride home.
That was the end of the story, she said.
Garthe has a strong Catholic faith, and loves the opportunity of
helping someone in need. Years ago, she fed the hoboes that used to
come off the train near her housethere were so many who happened to
stop by, she felt there might be a secret mark on her door. She
recently met an Afghan mom and her two children at a bus stop. One
morning, the mom wasnt there and her two kids, uneasy about being
alone, asked Garthe to wait for the bus with them.
Her biggest blessing is her 51-year-old adopted son, Peter Garthe.
Decades ago, already a young mother of five, she took in Peter, who
was nearly deaf and suffered from a serious heart condition. He didnt
talk until the age of 5 and was eventually diagnosed with mild autism.
Now he is known in Traverse City as a statistical sports guru. Each
year on her birthday, he writes a long heartfelt note of love and
I need him and he needs me. Hes what keeps me going, she said.
Unfortunately, Peter does have health problems, most of them related
to a car accident and getting beat up one night as he walked home
after selling National Cherry Festival pins. He suffers from painful
headaches and was on his way last week to a doctors appointment.
When he keeps busy, they dont bother him as much, Garthe said,
smiling just before she climbed into her Subaru to drive away.