Margaret Balneaves is 101 years of age. She’s welcomed me into her home on a windy afternoon. Her hands are cold, but her bright blue eyes and pink outfit give her a playful, almost youthful appearance. She smiles as she tells me about her three children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Her home is warm and there are many photos of her family displayed around the dining and living rooms.
She celebrated her birthday with friends at the local Steady As You Go exercise class recently. After their usual exercise, the group shared afternoon tea. There were cakes, candles, and many happy faces as they celebrated this exceptional lady.
Margaret has lived in Tawa since the 1950s. “This was one of the first houses on this hill in Tawa when we first moved here. There were lots of young families, it was a wonderful place for kids to grow-up. We all knew each other and looked out for each other. There were lots of returned servicemen, like my husband.” At first, there was no water and no sewage. There was a dry toilet in the garage, a water tank, and they heated water with fire.
“I grew-up in the depression. We had a veggie garden, which helped a lot. People complain of prices going up, but anyone can stick a silver beet seed in the ground…”
At the bottom of her road, there are 103 steps down the main street in Tawa. Margaret took these steps every almost every day until she was 96 years old. “It helped me have strong bones I think. I had my first broken bone when I was 100,” says Margaret.
“Most of my grandchildren live in Australia, but I keep in touch with them over Facebook,” she says nonchalantly, as if all 101-year-olds are comfortable with social media. “When Andrew, my husband, hurt his shoulder in the 1970s, he couldn’t play golf anymore so he got a computer with the intention of researching his family tree. We took courses with SeniorNet, and I’ve been using computers ever since.”
“Andrew died in a car accident 20 years ago. He was 83,” she says quickly as if she doesn’t want to stop on the sad thought for too long. “I was concussed from the crash. I remember lying on my bed a couple of months later and looking at my husband’s photo. He would have told me to get up and get cracking. So that’s what I did.”
Margaret learned shorthand at polytechnic when she was 12, enabling her to work in an office by the time she was 14. She met Andrew when she was 16 and he was 18. Andrew and Margaret went on a double date, and they were soon engaged. “I bought my wedding dress for five pounds, and we got married when he came back from the war.”
Andrew was captured in a battle and was a prisoner of war in Europe for three and a half years. He didn’t speak of it much, but did join a POW Association. The wives picked-up a little information from each other at reunions every three years. After her husband’s death, Margaret found a box of his war documents under a couch. She digitised much of it for her family.
When Margaret was 68 years old, she had bowel cancer. “You know your body, and you know if there’s something wrong – listen to your body.” Thanks in part to her self-awareness, her bowel cancer was caught early and she was treated successfully. She started exercise after this, and still participates in regular Steady As You Go exercise classes.
The companionship found at the exercise classes is an important part of her life. “People don’t realise that having that time every week to have a chat while exercising is as important as the exercise. And everyone can do these exercises!” She’s thankful to her friend Mavis for inviting her to the classes and loved sharing afternoon tea with them for her birthday. Margaret thinks isolated people should give the classes a go.
She’s also been involved with the local church for many years, and believes this is important for social connection as well. “They’re caring people. Just go along for the fellowship, don’t worry about whether you believe in the religion or not,” she says.
Margaret gave up driving three years ago, but her daughter lives nearby and checks-in on her regularly. Margaret is able to cook, bake, make tea, and much more. “As long as I’m able to do it, it’s silly not to.”
While Margaret’s hearing has diminished over the years, her eyesight is still keen and she has a fantastic memory. As I prepare to leave her comfortable home, she shares a nugget of wisdom with me:
“Only you can make yourself do things, only you know how you’re feeling. Be positive in your mind, and realise only you can choose to help yourself.”
~ Lorna Harvey