EMERSON, N.J. — As the digital numbers flashed on the blood pressure monitor, a public health nurse in New Jersey got right to the point with her 82-year-old patient.
“When did you have your last physical? Do you go for a physical every year?” asked Kathryn Hodges.
"Not really,” said Kenneth Dunne.
“Well, you should,” the nurse said, jotting on a form. “We always say if that number is over 90, you should get it checked out. Are you on blood pressure medication? Did you get a flu shot?"
When “Kay” Hodges advises and cajoles, her words are bolstered by experience — three quarters of a century’s worth.
At 97, she is both New Jersey’s oldest licensed registered nurse and a poster girl for people who stay active and productive at such an advanced age.
Those over 90 are the fastest-growing segment of the population. By 2050, 10% of all senior citizens will be either a nonagenarian — a person age 90 to 99 — or a centenarian — those 100 or older, the Census Bureau forecasts.
Of course, physical or cognitive impairments, or both, enfeeble many in this age group. The most fortunate are like the fiercely independent Hodges, whose biggest complaint is a bothersome knee.
There are some people in their 90s who live in their own homes, drive, volunteer, serve their communities and churches — even continue in their professions. Hodges, who walks unaided and drives around in a 25-year-old Buick Roadmaster wagon with oxidized paint and a "GRAMPIE" vanity plate, does all of those things.
She has no plans to stop.
“I want to leave this Earth with my boots on,” Hodges said. “I want to keep working. It’s the love of my life, other than my husband, who was a great guy.”
When Hodges graduated from high school in 1937, she had to wait until the following year, after her 18th birthday, to begin the nursing program at Hackensack Hospital.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” she said, laughing. “I always wanted to be a nurse, and I’ve always been one!”
She finished nursing school in 1941, months before Pearl Harbor. The following year, she married her high school sweetheart, Donald Hodges.
On her first job, Hodges performed physicals on employees of a medical laboratory. After taking a few years off when her two sons were little, she became a public health nurse for the borough of Westwood.
Hodges has been the borough of Emerson’s public health nurse — a part-time post that involves health screenings, education and prevention — since 1967. Her cheerful office is located in the senior center. Most who come to see her, for a blood pressure check or for the advice of a seasoned and accessible nurse, are elderly.
“They talk about this little pain, that little pain. Maybe I can be of some help to them,” Hodges said. “You have to have a love of people and a real desire to keep them well, so they be active citizens and do their own thing.”
How unusual is Kay Hodges?
Anek Belbase, a research fellow at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, studies the cognitive and physical abilities of older people with respect to work. He hasn’t focused on people in their 90s because the sample size is too small, but said that as long as one’s body and health hold up, continuing to work regularly “fires that connection” in the brain that helps preserve the ability to do the job.
But why would a person of 90, or 93, or 97, choose to work?
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the reason, and the only reason, is that it gives their life a purpose,” said Belbase. “They’re probably not doing it for the money at that age, but work gives their life meaning, makes them get up and go, and keeps them socially connected.”
That rings true for Hodges.
Indeed, the job keeps her rooted in community. Besides seeing patients during her Thursday office hours, she has monthly obligations: attending the Emerson Board of Health meeting, where she gives a patient report, and taking continuing education classes in Hackensack through the Bergen County (N.J.) Department of Health Services.
To many nurses, Hodges is something of a rock star. “We’ve been in meetings together, we’ve been in classes together, and I can say she’s amazing, just amazing,” said Edith Collazzi, a nursing in-service instructor for the county. “She knows everybody and makes it a point to speak with everybody. ... She’s such a positive force.”
Hodges' sons, who live nearby, are supportive.
“We try to let her do her thing and check on her every day,” said Helen Hodges, the wife of the older son, James. “She’s good at setting limits for herself, and we just see that she makes good decisions and stays safe. But she’s a strong-willed lady and pretty much runs her own life and calls her own shots.”
Helen Hodges understands her mother-in-law’s commitment to continue caring for others. She’s a nurse, too, but retired then rejoined the workforce as a part-time public health nurse for Bergen County, N.J.
“She feels that being active and working and all that is a healthy thing, and I agree,” Helen Hodges said. “That’s who she’s been her whole life.”
Kay Hodges shies away from talk of the "R" word.
Asked what she would do if she concluded she could no longer carry out her nursing duties, she said without hesitation: “I would hope the good Lord would take me. I would want him to say, ‘That’s it.’ ”
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