"Oldest Old" Form Fast-Growing Population
Mavis Thomas was 67 when she closed the school door and retired from 39 years as an elementary teacher. “Oh, I loved teaching,” she sighs, and a warm smile washes over her face.
She’d worked a bit longer than she’d originally planned. After confronting the challenge of uterine cancer, she returned to the classroom for an extra year with students.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t done yet,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to say, ‘I’m done’.” Now, three decades later, the same determination prompts Mavis Thomas to rise early and make the most of each day in the Eugene retirement home where she is known as the “flower girl.”
Since she moved in seven years ago, Thomas has established herself as the restorer of tired bouquets. Residents, family members, even the gardeners at Cascade Manor bestow flowers fresh or faded that she sorts and rearranges and puts back on display in public spots throughout the building. On the day I talked with her, Thomas counted 14 bouquets she was maintaining. Clearly, she’s not yet ready to say, “I’m done.”
“It gets me up in the morning,” she says. “That’s something you need at this age. I wake up and say, ‘Oh, I could sleep another hour,’ but then I remember the rose on the second floor that needs to be replaced. It gives me something to do.”
At 99, Thomas is one of America’s “oldest old,” a category that now ranks as the fastest growing segment of our population. Some studies set “oldest old” at 85; others argue that increasing longevity makes age 90 a more appropriate front edge for “oldest old.” The US Census Bureau calculates that almost five percent of the US population today is 90 and older. That figure is expected to double to 10 percent by 2050, as more and more of us live longer than the generations before us.
In May, the CBS news program 60 Minutes profiled participants in a recent study of lifestyle patterns that boost a person’s odds of reaching the “oldest old” rank. The news program featured recent University of California Irvine research that determined genes have a role in longevity, but lifestyle patterns also contribute. The 90+ Study revealed that long life correlates with:
Alcohol, in moderation.
Coffee, 1-3 cups a day
Exercise, 15-45 minutes a day
No tobacco use
Modest weight increase after age 70
It was fascinating information. The 60 Minutes program made 90 look absolutely gleeful in a California retirement community of lively elders who enjoyed bridge games, dance nights, brisk walks, and senior romances. As I watched, I realized that I haven’t thought much about life at age 90. Perhaps it’s time. I’m fast approaching the end of the “young old” category (65-74). Just ahead is plain and simple “old” (74-84).
Coffee, Wine and Exercise Meet
Diet Patterns for Long Life
The “oldest old” designation carries the distinction of achievement, of reaching the top of the scale. But what does it mean in terms of daily life and personal satisfaction? I wondered how the research matched the lifestyle patterns of folks 90 and over in our own community. Do behaviors that corresponded with long life in California deliver the same results in Oregon?
At 99, Mavis Thomas is proud to be one of the oldest residents at Cascade Manor. She doesn’t touch alcohol, but does drink coffee. She’s not a bit overweight. She tried tobacco once, she told me. It was a horrible experience never repeated.
These days, her exercise is largely devoted to maintaining flowers on several floors of the residence. Once a week, with a walker for stability, she crosses busy 29th Avenue to shop at the grocery or drug store. The crosswalk, with a pedestrian controlled stoplight, gives Thomas a safe route, thanks to 91-year-old Buford “Buff” Roach.
A Eugene native, Roach moved into the Cascade Manor retirement complex six years ago and very quickly put his years of engineering and administrative experience to work.
As a newcomer in the facility, he watched his neighbors totter across 29th Avenue, dodging cars exiting the shopping center parking lot. He recognized a tragic event in the making. City traffic engineers who accepted Roach’s invitation to visit the site agreed with his assessment of the risks and installed the lights that now provide safer crossing for pedestrians.
“I like to feel productive,” Roach explains. “I like to feel I am accomplishing something that is helpful to others. At this point in life, that is more important than having a lot of fun.”
For 36 years, Roach’s work with Chevron led his family around the United States and Europe. He and his wife returned to Eugene when he retired in 1983. When he assesses the factors in his longevity, Roach acknowledges that yes, his diet includes some alcohol, and coffee. Walks and exercise sessions with a therapist keep him trim and active.
As for smoking, he was a three-pack a day man in the 1960s when a foresighted physician showed him photos of smokers’ lungs. He tossed his pack into the doctor’s wastebasket and never puffed again. But longevity, he argues, relies on more than alcohol, coffee, or exercise patterns. It includes a lot of luck—and a happy marriage.
“I think it was my wife,” he says, when asked what factors have contributed to reaching 91 in good mental and physical health. Although Patricia died shortly after the couple moved into a retirement apartment, her influence remains strong. “We had a wonderful relationship and supported one another through thick and thin,” he says. “We had tragedies. We had success. I look back on that as a bulwark for still wanting to exist.”
A Good Marriage and World War II
Share Credit for Long, Fullfilling Life
An earlier influence on the path that Roach’s life has taken came with World War II. He calls his military experience an education in cooperation, discipline, and allegiance to a mission.
“People at my age will often tell you that their life was redirected by World War II and that happened to me,” he says. “It was a very formative experience, for a kid of 21, to be thrust into the environment of war and Guam. To meet people from all different backgrounds. It was essential in directing how I looked at the world from then on.”
According to 2010 US Census Bureau reports, Roach and Thomas are among almost 2 million Americans aged 90 and over. Over the next four decades, this number is projected to quadruple.For those of us who make it into that population group, the University of California Irvine’s 90+ Study uncovered risks as well as satisfactions. Forty percent of people aged 90 and older suffer from dementia, researchers found. Almost 80 percent have a disability that impacts mobility or independent living.
Mary Jane Robert, 91, rues the hearing loss that sometimes troubles her in social interactions. She laments the way words vanish in the air, just at the moment you reach for them. Disabilities, yes, but not the end of a meaningful life.
“I feel fortunate not to have anything else at this point,” she says. Robert loves coffee, drinks alcohol on social occasions and never smoked. But it’s exercise and nutrition, she contends, that have had the greatest influence on her long and healthy life.
Robert was in her 40s when a friend attended a social event with University of Oregon legend Bill Bowerman. The friend returned with enthusiasm for a new fitness trend. She convinced Robert to join her in a jogging program on the South Eugene High track. Eventually, jogging gave way to walking and then expanded to include tennis, yoga and tai chi classes. Now, Robert walks three times a week with friends and participates in tai chi classes both at the retirement center and in the community.
Raised in Portland, she arrived in Eugene in the 1960s when her attorney husband, William Robert, accepted a teaching position in the UO School of Business. A few years after his death, she decided the family’s two-story College Hill house with a yard and upkeep was not a practical choice for her advancing years.
The move to a retirement community doesn’t seem to have slowed her a bit. She still attends Fortnightly Club meetings and participates in a long-standing book group with friends. The day we talked, she was preparing to host an afternoon bridge group in her apartment.
“At this age, you lose a lot of associates, and you don’t replace them,” she says. “But you can add new friends”
There’s good reason to keep adding new friends, even at 90 plus. The National Center for Health Statistics projects that those of us who now make it to 90 can anticipate about five more years to spend with people we enjoy.
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer
and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org