The Working Waterfront

Wisdom from my mother-in-law

Aging on an island requires activity

By Barbara Fernald
Posted 2023-07-25
Last Modified 2023-07-25

This month’s deadline at the end of April has me staring at my 70th birthday arriving in May. I admit to having mixed feelings about it, but so far the only birthday that really bothered me was my 40th.

I remember having tea with my mother-in-law, Anna, and her friend, Lil, who gave me a funny birthday card and told me it would be OK.

They both spoke with the wisdom of women in their 60s who had raised their children on the island and were content to have some of their offspring continuing the tradition.

When I recently expressed dismay at turning 70, thinking about the inevitable physical limitations that accompany age, a well-meaning younger friend said, “Hey, 70 is the new 30!” Well, not quite.

Anna is a total extrovert. She loves people. She was well matched by her late husband, Warren.

There’s no way to avoid the impact of 40 added years of exposure to gravity. If you want to live on an island, it helps to be in pretty good shape both emotionally and physically. When I try to imagine what the next 10 years will be like living here, I’m tempting a worried mood based on something that’s not even real yet. I’m better off going to have tea with my mother-in-law.

Anna Fernald is 92 years old, still living in the house she moved to as a young bride in 1950. Her home is in the middle of the island with a view through the woods to the harbor. She is Islesford’s oldest living year round resident, the last of her generation. (The next oldest is Rick Alley, at age 73.)

Anna is a total extrovert. She loves people. She was well matched by her late husband, Warren. For years their house was a social center on the island. With six kids of their own, there were always extra friends around at the dinner table. They were always welcome.
“Many nights there would be a group of people in every room of the house,” she told me. “I loved it.”

When her husband passed away 18 years ago she continued to surround herself with people, often taking in someone to stay for a while. For the last 12 years, Jim Fortune, the administrative assistant to our town’s selectmen, has lived at her house. He exchanges groceries and cooking for board.

“He is a great cook,” Anna told me. “Everything is delicious!”

I asked her what her secret was to staying in such good shape.

“Well, I feel great. I try not to get hurt. I try to be careful about my diet, but I allow myself ice cream if I want it. I walk a lot. Twice a day if I can.”

She usually walks for 30 to 45 minutes each time, often bending down to pick up trash along the way. She also still uses her hula hoop indoors when she can’t get out for a walk. Her skills are legendary. She can dance right across her large kitchen while keeping the hoop going.

My mother-in-law told me the best thing about being 92 on the island is that she gets to be among people she’s known for a long time. She said the key to staying here at her age is to have lots of family and friends. The biggest change she’s seen over the years is that there are not as many people around in the winter.

“So many houses that used to be filled are not now.”

We are both encouraged by the trend of younger people starting to move to Islesford and Great Cranberry. It’s a hopeful upswing in the population.

I asked if there were anything that might make staying on the island easier for her at 92 and her quick reply, was, “Yes. A single man!”

I could understand how no matter how often the kids or grandkids stopped in, it would never quite be the same kind of companionship as having someone to grow old with, I told her. Then I asked if I could mention the single man in my writing and she responded, “In capital letters, please!”

My last question: “From your 92 years of experience, what advice do you have for 70-year-olds?”

“You’re never too old to enjoy life. Love people. Enjoy it!”

Getting older. According to my able-bodied mother-in-law it’s going to be OK.

Barbara Fernald lives and writes on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island). She may be reached at