The following article is excerpted from my upcoming book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes, and is currently featured on the Web site of Diabetes Health magazine (www.diabeteshealth.com).
After All These Years: Gerald Cleveland, Age 91, Has Had Type 1 Diabetes for 75 Years
A life-time resident of the Syracuse, New York, area, Gerald Cleveland has had a history of not quite coming out on top – at least until now.
As salutatorian (the second-ranking person in a graduating class, after the valedictorian) of his high school class, his college program in education, and his Master’s degree, he good-naturedly complains that he was “always coming in second.”
In fact, his brother Bob has even had diabetes for seven years longer than he, making Gerald second in line when it comes to longevity with the disease in his family. However, he’s first when it comes to being the oldest individual living with diabetes for most of his lifetime (he’s a year older than Gladys Dull), and when he makes it to his 100th birthday (as he plans to do), he’ll be the first person with type 1 diabetes to ever achieve that honor as well.
For those of us who have not had to live with diabetes nearly as long as Gerald, it’s hard to conceive of having to take a whole syringe-full of insulin just to cover one meal, using a needle that was sharpened on a whetstone and felt like a knitting needle going in, or spending over fifty years with diabetes without benefit of a blood glucose meter.
Being the second child in his family to get diabetes (after brother Bob) was not a good place in line either, as he had already watched Bob suffer through diabetes treatments for seven years. He took it on with a positive attitude, though, coming up with innovative ways to control diabetes with the tools he had available. For instance, he rigged up a quart pot with holes to put test tubes in (instead of holding them over a Bunsen burner), so that he and his brother could test the sugar in their urine more easily back in the early days.
Labeled “an archeological find” by his doctor, this long-living brother attributes his longevity with diabetes to being active (walking long distances most of his life), being vigilant about his diet, and having faith that the best things in life always lie ahead. His vigilance about his diabetes control is readily apparent. One of his first diabetes doctors at the University Hospital at Syracuse gave him a menu of what he should eat to control his diabetes, and to this day he still has it posted on the door of his kitchen.
He describes controlling diabetes as similar to “walking on a tightrope that’s swinging in the air,” but admits to having developed a better sense than most about the effect of carbs and portion size on his blood sugars. He gets frustrated by other people’s misconceptions about food, such as when they mistakenly believe that “sugar-free” desserts will not have any effect on blood glucose levels (although the desserts still contain large amounts of carbs).
Gerald admits, “I have had a wonderful blessing of longevity and being a useful person,” a role that he fills to this day. He had a long career in education, serving first as a secondary school teacher of social studies and then as the first male elementary teacher in Syracuse, after which he became the principal of an elementary junior high. He earned his doctorate in education while working as assistant superintendent of the public school system for 27 years, and finally served as superintendent for one year before his retirement.
He was a member of the team that founded the public television station in Syracuse and was involved with Junior Achievement. He also served as an elder at his local Presbyterian Church for seventy years and worked for the Syracuse Rescue Mission (serving the homeless and hurting of Central New York) for many years. He was recently honored as an outstanding alumnus of Syracuse University and has also been recognized by the Joslin Diabetes Center and Lilly Pharmaceuticals for his longevity with diabetes. He even donates his time at the Nottingham Center, where he currently lives in Jamesville, New York, acting as a consultant and advisor to help other residents learn how to live better with diabetes.
Gerald’s life has also been blessed with a 62-year marriage (that ended in 2002 with his wife Mildred’s passing), two children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren to date. His wife was vigilant about checking to see if his blood sugars were low at night and generally looking out for him (not that he needed too much help). To this day, his daughter continues to check in on him frequently, calling him three times daily to make certain that his blood sugars are not too low.
Regardless of any physical ailments he has had related to his diabetes (such as the loss of two toes on his right foot), he has always kept a positive outlook. He truly believes that there are angels all around him – looking out for him – because whenever he has found himself having difficulty with his diabetes, someone or something has been there to help him.
When it comes to being a diabetes celebrity, Gerald admits to feeling a bit uncomfortable. “I feel like a very ordinary guy, but then there’s this other person that everyone looks up to that hardly feels like me – the one who’s an inspiration to so many people living with diabetes. I’m just afraid of letting them down somehow.” Not much chance of that, Gerald!