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November 25, 1997

Living Longer and Loving It

by Julie McGehee

"Age only matters when one is aging. Now that I have arrived at a great age, I might as well be 20."

-- Pablo Picasso (at 80)

Never in human history have so many lived so long, in relative good health and economic comfort. The average life expectancy is now 75 which signals a very recent and dramatic revolution. Life expectancy was only 47 at the turn of the century, 35 in 1776, and about 20 years for early man. However, U.S. culture tends to be stuck on images of aging from a time when old age set in around 40. These outdated images will undoubtedly be transformed as the baby boom generation ages. Baby boomers will provide new role models for generations to come and the onset of old age itself will be redefined, to age 80 and above!

If you still hold on to the view that old age is a time of poor health, loneliness, dependency, senility and physical and sexual inactivity, you are mistaken. The vast majority of older Americans are not seriously impaired by major health problems, with most Americans age 60-79 giving their overall life situation high marks, and over 50 percent of those 80 and over rate their lives as excellent or very good. Increasingly, research is showing that many conditions once thought to be the consequence of aging are in fact the result of disease, allowing us to reach the end of our lives having maintained an active, fulfilling life through all our years.

It may surprise many that most older Americans are enjoying life, and in fact, report higher levels of psychological well being than young people. Older persons often enjoy less pressure from family and work obligations, have fewer worries about themselves and how they look to people, and have more freedom to pursue interests. Today's grandparents may not be available to baby-sit as in the past. They're out camping at Yosemite or taking in the foliage on the East Coast; their neighbor has taken up marathon running and local politics at the age of 72; and his little brother has just taken an early retirement and is pursuing a lifelong dream to become a jazz musician.

Positive aging for older adults today involves many activities that keep seniors busy and active, connected to their communities and self reliant. The growth in leisure and wellness activities targeting seniors reflects the changes in American society and the increased expectations of baby boomers.

Like the rest of our nation, Mobile and the Gulf Coast region offers many activities to challenge and engage our older citizens. USA's Odyssey program, Elderhostel, and Bishop State Community College's free tuition program for seniors are some of the local opportunities for life-long learning. Wellness programs are available at most of the hospitals, the Mary Abbie Berg Senior Center, the YMCA, Mobile Eldercare, and through churches and other senior centers. Travel opportunities and travel clubs for seniors are plentiful. Seniors also are very active as volunteers through RSVP, Volunteer Mobile, and numerous civic, social, and charitable organizations. Other seniors have the opportunity to participate in the political process through such organizations as the Alabama Silver-Haired Legislature or their local chapter of American Association of Retired Persons.

The Area Agency on Aging of the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission sponsors three regional events that promote positive aging and advocacy for older adults by showcasing active seniors. The Masters Games, the Ms. Senior Alabama Pageant and the State Spelling Bee.

The Gulf Coast Masters Games offer regional and state competition in events such as bowling, track and field, tennis, swimming, golf, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, shuffleboard, dominos, rock, horseshoes, etc. for persons 55 to 95. It is common to find athletes such as swimmers and runners who have taken up these sports after a heart attack has brought home the message that a healthy lifestyle and exercise are essential to healthy aging. The Gulf Coast Masters Games support healthy lifestyles, challenges individuals to strive toward personal goals, provides the opportunity to make new friends and inspires others to achieve. The games are held annually in September and October.

True to the role of Ms. Senior Alabama, our 1997 Ms. Senior Gulf Coast of Alabama, Dr. Annelle Jerome, is such a woman. At age 80, she will be cruising down the Amazon River next month, hunting crocodiles and entertaining other passengers with her outgoing, warm personality and "Chicken Lady" routine. She recently returned from Alaska with her trip including a helicopter tour of glaciers. She has been around the world several times. Her travels over the past two years have included a motorcycle tour of a Holland town and an eight-hour camel ride over desert sands in Jordan. When she is not traveling and visiting the many foreign youths she and the late Dr. Jerome "adopted," she is serving as a local ambassador and host to foreign visitors and medical professionals. She taught one recent group of Japanese visitors to make paper butterflies which they are selling in Japan to raise funds to build a Japanese garden in Mobile.

Mrs. Jerome's other activities include serving on numerous community boards, her church's mission board, entertaining senior citizens and children, and performing her duties as Ms. Senior Gulf Coast. Despite some health problems, she keeps a busy, hectic schedule and is enjoying life to the fullest!

Whether participating in the pageant, masters games, spelling bee, politics, paid or volunteer work, travel, wellness programs, grandparenting, surfing the web, or church work, positive aging has become the norm. Seniors are overwhelmingly satisfied with their place in life. We are fortunate to be approaching a new century where aging is likely to be celebrated and enjoyed for the freedom and flexibility it offers. This redefining of old age is one of the many legacies the baby boomer generation will us in the years to come.

Julie McGehee, LCSW, ACSW, is Director of Area Agency on Aging, South Alabama Regional Planning Commission.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL