Paula Marie Ursey

It is easy to stereotype people based on age. A couple of years ago, I had a chance to talk with one of my older widowed neighbors near a mailbox in front of her house. Doris had lived in the community for years, but I hadn’t gotten to know her. I used the excuse that I didn’t have time to spare because of my work and other commitments. But after a few chance encounters at the mailbox, Doris and I started to develop a relationship.

I started visiting Doris in her home periodically. She surprised me with her wit and interests. I learned that this delightful, 98-year-old woman had the habit of firing up her computer each morning and getting on the Internet just so she could learn something new each day. And even though she used a walker, Doris told me she did leg squats and leg lifts every morning; she then demonstrated some of her exercises for me.

During one of our visits, I told Doris that when shopping, I felt like some younger store employees were starting to talk to me using language and vocal tones that people used when addressing five-year-old children. Doris quickly jumped in and told me she hated it when people talked down to her or treated her like she was senile or no longer visible. She said, “Sometimes when I go shopping, people just push me aside like I’m not there.”

While I knew Doris got frustrated with the way other people treated her at times, I also appreciated that she was one of the more positive people I had met. I asked her how she stayed so positive. She told me that sometimes it wasn’t easy, but she made a choice to be positive as much as possible.

It probably wouldn’t surprise Doris, but research is now finding that individuals who maintain a positive attitude have a greater likelihood of living a longer life. Reported in an Aug, 26 article in ScienceDaily, Boston University School of Medicine researchers “have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve ‘exceptional longevity,’ that is, living to age 85 or older.”

On one occasion, Doris told me about her mother’s work as a newspaper journalist. At the time — probably close to the period when women won the right to vote — Doris said it was uncommon for women to hold such positions. Yet her mother worked hard and proved that she could do the job; she was a trailblazer for other women who followed in her footsteps.

It is easy to forget that those who have come before us have blazed trails for the rest of us to follow. Before she passed on earlier this year, I asked Doris what her secret was to a long and satisfying life. Her answer was consistent with what we now know about longevity from regions known as Blue Zones; in those regions, people tend to live longer, healthier lives than in other parts of the world. Doris said that in addition to staying positive, she kept active, ate right, continued to learn, and served others whenever possible; those were her best secrets for aging well. Then she added, good genes had probably helped too.

I’m part of a new generation of aging people. According to the Social Security Administration, people my age, 65 and over, now have a one in three chance of living into our nineties and a one in seven chance of living past 95. Overall, we are living longer, healthier lives than any generation before us. Following on our heels are other generations that will likely live at least as long or longer.

We have entered a new longevity era that aging experts predict will continue into the unforeseeable future. We need strong trailblazers or guides to show us what is possible as we grow older. We do not have to limit ourselves based on stereotypical views of aging.

If I do live into my nineties, which I fully intend to do, I hope to be the kind of guide for others that Doris was for me. Even if I don’t live so long, I still believe I can help blaze a trail for confident aging that could benefit others. In the meantime, I am choosing to stay positive, active, and healthy. How about you?

Paula Marie Usrey is a retired associate professor of communication. She is also a certified professional retirement coach and gives presentations and writes about positive aging.

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