Laverne Hart, a World War II Navy veteran and retired insurance auditor from Chicago’s south suburbs, enjoys her almost daily card games and lunches at senior centers, and the park district in her neighborhood. A widow for many years, Hart lives alone. Her only son lives in California. She uses a walker, but still drives and maintains her own home.

“I have a lot of ailments, but I keep on going,” says Hart, who is still energetic at 90 years old. Or perhaps that should read, “energetic at 90 years.” Period.

“I’m not old,” Hart says. “‘Old’ is not by age.”

People like Hart used to be the exception. But now, living into your 90s is no surprise. The average American life expectancy is 78. That’s 10 more years than 1950, when most people lived until 68. And it’s more than 30 years longer than the life expectancy at the turn of the century. 

Like beauty, age is now in the eye of the beholder. Most of the oldest baby boomers think they will be “old” when they turn 79, according to a 2011 study by MetLife, which surveyed people born in 1946. About 20% of the 1,012 respondents thought they were mentally at their sharpest in their 60s.

As people live longer, they celebrate birthdays with family and friends, but struggle with the challenges of a breaking-down body, fizzling finances and the question of whether they are “old”—and what that even means.

 

Aging is inevitable

You may feel as sprightly as a child with the wiles of a teenager, but sociologist Linda Waite says you must pay attention to your body when it starts telling you you’re old, no matter how active you are. 

“A 100-year-old might feel 15, but her body isn’t the same as a 15-year-old’s,” says Waite, who directs the Center on Aging at University of Chicago. “She doesn’t sleep like a 15-year-old. Her mind isn’t like a 15-year-old’s.”

People are living longer because of better health care and more knowledge about how to stay physically sound. But no matter what you do to feel young, your body breaks down over time. No one can escape the inevitable physical decline that comes with our mortal selves.

“Men are more likely to get the big serious stuff,” Waite says. “Women are more likely to have the things that don’t kill you, but make your life miserable,” such as hearing and vision loss, arthritis, mobility issues, and memory loss. 

Dr. Timothy Vavra is an internist at Loyola University Medical Center in suburban Chicago. He says he cares for plenty of healthy and active older patients, and others who suffer more from the effects of age. “You see all extremes,” he says.

And while he consults a few patients riding their bicycles into their 80s, and traveling through Alaska in their 90s, that doesn’t mean they are without pains and problems.

“People are living longer these days. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago—we didn’t have the aging problems back then,” Vavra says. “Arthritis is the biggest issue.”

Arthritis is joined by heart disease and hypertension as the three most common chronic conditions among people age 65, according to the government report Older Americans 2012. Even among relatively healthy adults with strong hearts, physical failings are typically in store.

“Your ears are going to go bad. Your eyes are going to go bad,” Vavra says. Medical science has figured out how to correct some issues. “Cataracts, those can be fixed.”

 

Losses and changes

The longer we live, the more we lose—hearing, memory, mobility and loved ones. It can all be quite depressing.

“What are the things that help us age with grace? What can mitigate those losses? Staying involved,” says Signe Gleeson, a geriatric care manager in suburban Chicago.

Staying active and connected is important, Gleeson says. Without it, an older person can feel isolated, leading to a loss of emotional well-being, and even cognition.

Older people can connect at community senior centers and adult day care centers, and get help from Area Agencies on Aging that offer services, including transportation and meal delivery. Churches and community colleges also offer trips, classes and other programming geared toward older adults. 

Facing the limitations of an aging body can be emotionally difficult, but small adjustments can actually ensure people stay healthy and independent.

“Our big concern is patients falling,” Vavra says. He talks with patients about ways to prevent those falls, such as rearranging furniture, using a cane or walker, and relocating their bedroom to the first floor. When appropriate, he encourages patients to use physical therapy to prolong their mobility.

“Once you’re in a wheelchair, muscle mass deteriorates quickly,” Vavra says.

Vavra says it helps when family members are involved in older people’s lives, and take part in discussions about health care and lifestyle. Don’t think your family is interfering. They care, and that’s a good thing.

“We’re all going to get to that point when we need our kids to take care of us,” Vavra says. “Most of us who have good families know we should be watching out for our families.”

When Vavra consults seniors who don’t have a ready network of care, he often gets the hospital’s social workers involved. They can visit the patient’s home to determine their needs ,and arrange for Meals on Wheels and other services.

 

More time, less money

Karen Scanlon, a retired schoolteacher in California, says she feels pretty good at 65. She is doing all the things she hoped to do—travel, babysit her grandchildren, and care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Scanlon says when she was 40, she figured she’d still be working now. As a divorced mom, she didn’t have much retirement savings. But she went back to school to earn her teaching certificate, and got a job with a pension. She also remarried in 2006, becoming part of a double-income, double-pension household. Retirement, and the fun that comes with it, became a reality.

MetLife’s 2011 survey of people born in 1946 found that half of the seniors think they are “on track or have achieved their retirement goals.” 

But while some baby boomers retire with comfortable pensions or 401(k) savings, others struggle to make ends meet with Social Security payments and scant savings. Many just keep working, says Derek Tharp, a financial planner for Mote Wealth Management in Iowa.

“The economy, rising health care costs and longevity haven’t helped retirees,” Tharp says. “But lack of planning and earlier saving has a bigger impact on those who are prepared, and those who aren’t.” 

To maximize their income as late into life as possible, Tharp suggests clients consider only partially retiring, and waiting as long as possible before claiming Social Security.

“Choosing the optimal strategy can mean the difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Tharp says.

In the past, older people mostly only worried about financial plans for after their death. Now they have to plan for how to manage their household for the long haul, through downsizing and health issues, says attorney Darcy Chamberlin, of Chamberlin Law Group in suburban Chicago.

Twenty years ago, Chamberlin says her practice mostly focused on planning funeral arrangements, and how to divide up an estate after a family member’s death. Now, families often need help figuring out their role in the health and finances of their aging mom or dad. And the parents need to make some decisions, too.

“If you’re unable to participate in your health care decision-making or financial decision-making, how do you make sure your wishes will be carried out?” Chamberlin says. 

Chamberlin encourages her clients to talk with their children or caregivers about big decisions, including where they want to live if they can’t remain completely independent. Seniors may consider legal documents, such as a durable power of attorney for health care, and a mental health care declaration.

Some seniors keep working through their 70s, because they want to work, not because they need the money, says Lauren Lindsay, director of financial planning for Personal Financial Advisors based in Louisiana.

“They love what they do,” Lindsay says. “It’s more men than women. I think men tend to be more tied to their career as part of their identity.” Others keep working because of habit or because they may be widowed, lonely or bored.

 

In the end, it’s your age

As people age nowadays, they can be torn between an old and new set of values. Instead of quietly slipping into “old age,” with all the slow-down that accompanies it, a new attitude expects seniors to socialize, absorb new technology, and be as vibrant as they ever were. And many people would like to live their longer life to its fullest. 

Gleeson founded ElderCare Solutions 15 years ago to support children, spouses, siblings and other caregivers of older people. The service helps them manage their medical and lifestyle needs. Geriatric care management is a field that has grown in the past two decades, hastened by the influx of older adults. Gleeson says she would like people to embrace some of the change that comes with age, and be realistic.

“You see these ads, they have these people climbing Mt. Everest at age 90. That’s not the norm,” Gleeson says. “There are things we can do to stay healthy, but we still age.”

Even so, many people see their later years as a chance to do the things they never had time for while raising families and holding down jobs. In her retirement, Scanlon has been enjoying photography, a book club, and especially traveling. Scanlon says her younger self may have once considered 65 to be “old,” but not anymore.

“Late 80s is old. Or maybe ‘old’ is when your life is inhibited by health issues,” Scanlon says. “But someone who’s in good shape and they’re 80, that’s not old. I think ‘old’ is very much a state of mind.”

And there’s nothing wrong with feeling and acting young, as long as you have a good perspective on your age, for your happiness and safety.

“Most people age very well,” Gleeson says. “(But it has) its own sense of challenges. Aging is part of the life cycle. The challenge is accepting limitations with grace, and accepting assistance.”