In the middle of an interview about healthy aging, Fishel Goldig, 84, bursts into song.
Anh Lan Vu, 89, has a Facebook account where she posted photos from her recent trip to Paris.
On Wednesday afternoons, Eleanor Robertson, 91, bowls. Robertson, who still drives, stops to pick up a 94-year-old neighbour on her way to the bowling alley.
Lisa Gartner, 98, wears funky red and blue eyeglasses and enjoys the occasional smoked meat sandwich at Snowdon Deli. “It has to be medium with fries,” she says.
And 102-year-old Doris Lerner Schwartz, whose husband died in 2005, says she isn’t interested in boyfriends: “Who needs the old geezers?”
If 40 is the new 20, then 80 is the new 60 — and 100 is the new 80.
Thanks to better medicines and healthier lifestyles, people are not just living longer, many are remaining active and continuing to have fun. By doing so, they’re setting a good example for those of us who are younger, and are challenging negative preconceptions about aging.
“Attitudes towards aging are shifting,” said Karen Li, a Concordia University psychology professor who teaches a course about aging. “We’re moving away from thinking of aging as a bad thing. There’s still some of that negative thinking out there — for example, anti-aging cream. The idea of positive aging is more prevalent in other cultures, such as in countries where generations live under one roof, or in Canada’s (Indigenous) culture, where elders are considered wise.”
According to Statistics Canada, more than 750,000 Canadians were 85 or older in 2016 (the most recent year for which numbers are available). And between 2011 and 2016, those 100 or older made up the fastest-growing age group in the country. Five out of six of these centenarians are female.
At the Waldorf, a Côte-St-Luc seniors’ complex, 21 residents are or will be 100 or older in 2018. That number represents 10 per cent of the facility’s residents. To honour these centenarians, the Waldorf will host a birthday celebration on March 11.
“We regularly celebrate birthdays at the Waldorf, but due to the large number of centenarians in 2018, we wanted to highlight this milestone in their lives,” said Michael Goldwax, director general of the Waldorf.
Judes Poirier, a professor at McGill University’s department of psychiatry and director of the Douglas Institute’s Aging Program, is a specialist in healthy aging. The author of Jeune et centenaire (Trécarré, 2017), Poirier says longevity has more to do with lifestyle and environment than genetics.
“Longevity is estimated to be 30 per cent a matter of genetics, and 70 per cent a matter of lifestyle and environment,” he said.
Poirier has been interested in aging since he was a young man. “I was never satisfied with the religious view that humans are immortal,” he said. “To die and be immortal didn’t sound very appealing to me.”
His maternal grandmother — he always called her by her first name, Elzire — also influenced Poirier’s decision to study healthy aging. “She was the oldest woman in Manseau, a small village near Quebec City. She died of old age at 95,” he said.
According to Poirier, there are things we can do to increase our chances of living longer and healthier lives. These include not overeating, reducing our consumption of red meat, getting regular exercise and keeping busy.
Much of what we know about healthy aging comes from research carried out in Japan, the country with the highest percentage of citizens over the age of 85. “In the past 10 years, Japan has had a 400 per cent increase in centenarians,” said Poirier.
Because Japan is an island nation, meat is expensive; the Japanese tend to eat a lot of fish and vegetables. Poirier says they also eat less than North Americans and Europeans. “They stop eating when they feel they are 80 per cent full. This allows them to lose or maintain their weight. In contrast, we were raised to empty our plates,” he said.
Anh Lan Vu was born in Vietnam and moved to North America in 1969. She doesn’t do much Vietnamese-style cooking. “It’s too complicated,” she said. But Vu has fish at least twice a week, and eats lots of vegetables. “Also, I never tried a cigarette.”
Fishel Goldig doesn’t avoid red meat. “I eat as much red meat as I can,” he said. He also likes to have a glass of red wine with dinner — “two if the wine is real good.”
Poirier says seniors need to exercise, but he warns them not to exercise too vigorously. He recommends 15 minutes a day of walking, running or swimming for cardiovascular health. “Elderly people have to be careful with intense exercise. It’s like a used car: it lasts for a long time, but you have to be careful with it,” he said.
In summer, Eleanor Robertson takes a break from bowling when she goes to her cottage near Lancaster, Ont. But once she gets there, she swims every day for 20 minutes. “That’s where I have my bath. I also fish if I can find someone to take me out in my motorboat,” she said.
Lisa Gartner and Doris Lerner Schwartz, who both live at the Waldorf, rarely miss a chair aerobics class. Their instructor is Lana Oakes, who has worked at the residence for nearly 20 years. “I get a kick from all the energy these older people have,” said Oakes.
The multi-purpose room where Oakes gives her class is especially crowded on Monday mornings. “Mondays are busiest because people have to lose weight after the weekend,” said Shari Greenberg, the Waldorf’s recreation director.
Though participants are mostly seated during the class, standing is optional for some of the exercises. “Keep your backs nice and straight. Now step — two, three — and tap,” Oakes tells her students. There is music, too, though it is less loud than at most aerobics classes. Here, Frank Sinatra croons in the background.
At 102, Lerner Schwartz is prone to falling. “Any little thing can knock me over,” she said. But even after a recent tumble in her apartment, she was back at chair aerobics the next day.
Exercise has always been part of Lerner Schwartz’s life. When she was growing up in Winnipeg, her family didn’t have a car. “I used to walk like you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “I was a terrific walker. If someone was very slow, I used to walk around them. I couldn’t stand to wait. I’m still like that now.”
Aging requires courage. Robertson, Gartner and Lerner Schwartz are widows. One of the challenges of living a long life is coping with the deaths of family and friends.
Of course, not everyone at the Waldorf is as mobile — or as mentally alert — as Gartner or Lerner Schwartz. But the women say they do not fear death. “It’s a normal part of life. I pray to God I shouldn’t suffer,” Gartner said.
Poirier is in favour of assisted suicide. “It’s part of the 21st-century reality. Unfortunately, when you’re really sick these days, you tend to be really sick for longer,” he said. It bothers Poirier that Bill C-14, the federal assisted-suicide legislation, restricts choice for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
In the five years she has worked at the Waldorf, director of nursing Elana Cohen says she has never had a request for assisted suicide from a resident. “Families have requested it, but not the patients. As the resident reaches the real end of life — the person deteriorating to the point of mostly sleeping and hardly eating, and, through the eyes of the family, suffering — (relatives) will sometimes ask, ‘Can we do something to speed it up?’ ”
At the Waldorf, the protocol for end of life is to focus on patient comfort and pain management. “If family members request our intervention to speed up the dying process, we politely refuse,” said Goldwax.
Poirier says there is another important factor that contributes to healthy aging — one that has more to do with people’s characters than what they eat or how frequently they work out.
“In a European study of 125 centenarians, the centenarians were asked, ‘What’s your secret?’ and the researchers got 125 responses,” he said. “One person had brandy three times a day. Someone else abstained from alcohol. But when the researchers asked the individuals’ sons and daughters, they got the same answer: ‘My parent has a feisty character.’ ”
There is no question that Lerner Schwartz is feisty. Every second Thursday, a travelling salesman sets up shop in the lobby of the Waldorf. He sells inexpensive giftware. Lerner Schwartz does not have a high opinion of the merchandise. “He never has anything good,” she says. Then, when Lerner Schwartz realizes the salesman has overheard her comment, she adds: “At my age, I don’t need anything.”
By the numbers
In 2016, there were 770,780 Canadians aged 85 or older. This number represents 2.2 per cent of the country’s population.
Sidney, B.C. was the municipality with the largest percentage (9.7 per cent) of residents aged 85 or older that year.
Côte-St-Luc was the Quebec municipality with the largest number of residents (32,450) aged 85 or older.
There were 8,230 centenarians in Canada in 2016.
In 2016, 32 per cent of Canadians aged 85 or older lived in collective dwellings such as seniors’ residences or nursing homes.
It is estimated that by 2051, 5.7 per cent of Canada’s population will be 85 or older.
Internationally, Japan has the highest percentage of people aged 85 or older. Four per cent of the Japanese population is in this age group.
Source: Statistics Canada
Myths about aging
In the course she teaches about aging, Concordia University psychology professor Karen Li debunks these common myths:
Older people are less happy and more depressed. “Some studies indicate that older people report feeling happier than young and middle-aged adults,” Li said.
Everyone gets dementia. “That is not the case. In Canada, approximately seven per cent of all seniors aged 65 and older have a dementia diagnosis, which includes Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and other forms. Importantly, vascular dementia is the second-most common after Alzheimer’s, but it is more preventable through healthy lifestyle practices.”
Older people become disinterested in sex. “For older people, sexuality and intimacy may be expressed in a different way.”
“An old dog can’t learn new tricks.” According to Li, that adage is inaccurate. “Older adults can learn new things. They can acquire technical skills and absorb new information, although this may take longer than before.”
If your memory isn’t as good as it once was, you are getting dementia. Some decline in the ability to remember is a normal part of the aging process. “As we age, there are normal changes to our cognitive abilities. However, world knowledge, vocabulary and language skills are typically preserved and can actually improve as we age.”