It was minus 26 F, the dead of winter in Mongolia, when Jerry Friedman stepped off a plane in Ulan Bator and resumed his search for the oldest people on Earth.
Friedman was in awe the next morning when he met Damchaagiin Gendendarjaa, a 110-year-old Tibetan Buddhist lama: He had earned a doctorate in theology at age 106. He had all his teeth. He had never seen a doctor in his life, yet mild arthritis in his lower back was his only ailment.
"He was the holiest person I've ever been in the presence of," Friedman recalled of his February 2003 trip. "It's hard to describe, other than he had a certain countenance I had never experienced before."
The lama was one of more than 50 "supercentenarians," people at least 110 years old, whom Friedman interviewed and photographed for a book, "Earth's Elders: The Wisdom of the World's Oldest People."
Friedman, 58, a commercial photographer, closed his Connecticut studio so he could travel the world to track down his elderly subjects, verify their ages as accurately as possible and document their life stories.
"This process has changed me completely, just meeting these people," he said. "I have learned to listen. I have learned that my own cultural bias (about the elderly) needs to be addressed and changed."
His journey started in 2001, when he "embedded" himself at his mother's assisted-living facility in Westwood, Massachusetts, and lived there for four days. He set out to get a glimpse into his future, but he saw much more than that.
"What I saw really opened my eyes. I saw so much good and bad," he said, explaining how he found people "living in a cultural shell.
"We as a culture have found a way to move them out of the mainstream and box them in."
And the good? "They are people we can learn from," he said. "They are just sitting there, waiting to give us this extraordinary information. You just have to listen."
Before he could embark on his globe-trotting search, Friedman needed a "compass" to find the world's oldest people. He found one in Robert Young, an Atlanta-based investigator for the Gerontology Research Group, which keeps a global database of supercentenarians.
As of Oct. 31, the group's database listed the names, ages and hometowns of 65 women and nine men who are at least 110 years old, but that's only the number the group's researchers have been able to validate. Young said there are an estimated 300 to 450 living supercentenarians worldwide, with around 60 in the United States.
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