1/3 Sjef Rongen then and now at the age of 97

    People from Brabant are getting older and are allowed to blow out more and more candles on their birthday cake. About 75 years ago, our province had few people over the age of 85, around 2100. Nowadays there are almost thirty times as many. This is evident from research by Het PON & Telos. We set out to find the secret of these golden ancients.

    Profile photo of Imke van de LaarProfile photo of Sanne Hoeks

    They are ready for our visit, Sjef and Miep Rongen. With a jug of coffee and a box of biscuits. He is 97, she turned 91 at the end of November. They live together in care center Merefelt in Veldhoven.

    What’s the secret to tapping into such a high age? They must fail to answer. Miep: “We’re just lucky. We used to learn to take care of each other and have fun. I think that makes you grow old,” he laughs. She knows what’s fun about living so long. “Then you can experience a lot.”

    “My father was declared dead during the war, but he is now 97.”

    Miep and Sjef have enough stories, daughter Carin agrees: “My father was in a labor camp during the war. His mother received the message from Germany that he was dead. But after the war he suddenly walked backwards at home. He had tuberculosis and there was in bad shape. The doctor said it wouldn’t work out. But here he is.”

    “You just have to keep breathing.”

    The largest group of Brabanders is now between 50 and 59 years old. But the aging population is increasing rapidly. Relatively speaking, more people over the age of 65 live with us than young people under the age of 20. The number of over-85s has even grown to more than 61,000.

    One of them is Stien van den Elsen from Helmond. She is 99 years old. Her secret to getting so old? “You just have to keep breathing,” she laughs. “I didn’t do or leave anything special for it.”

    Stien had a tough childhood. As a girl of 13 she worked as a maid. “I would never do that to my own children. I took care of a family with seven difficult children. At one point I collapsed. Then I was allowed to leave.”

    Now she lives independently in the Savant de Ameide residential care center, where she is cared for and cooked. Steven is satisfied. “I can’t do that much anymore, but I can still knit. So I do that every day.”

    “Hundred, what a thunder!”

    A little older than Miep, Sjef and Stien is Annie van Ettro from Helmond. She turned 100 in July. “Hundred, what a thunder!” exclaims Annie laughing.

    Annie also still lives independently in a sheltered accommodation. She no longer hears and sees well, but manages just fine. “I still do everything myself, washing, ironing and cooking. I want to do what I can still do.”

    “Growing old also has a dark side.”

    Getting old also has a dark side, they all agree. This becomes clear when Miep and Sjef leaf through an old photo album together. “People drop out every day. You’re the only one left”, Miep sighs.

    Still, they all secretly hope to stick to it for a few more years. Sjef: “I hope to be 105. If the man with the scythe comes by before then, I will bend.”

    This article is part of a series in which we look back at Brabant 75 years ago and is based on research by Het PON & Telos.