How old do you want to be? A century ago, the average newborn couldn’t expect to reach age 50. But according to a recent Harvard study, those of us who reach age 65 today can expect to live an average of 18 more years, and if we reach age 75, we’re likely to be around another 11 years. If this thought scares you, you’re not alone. Myths about aging abound in our culture. Myths like “to be old is to be sick.” Or, “the elderly don’t pull their own weight.”
We spoke with five local women who prove the fallacy of these myths. They range in age from 85 to 94, and each of these women is still leaving her mark on the world at large, and having some fun doing it. All of them still live in their own apartments or houses, with varying degrees of help, even though four of them have long outlived their husbands. While the world views they embrace vary greatly, from communism to devout Christianity, they share a zest for life and a propensity for staying busy.
Anna Vander Pol lives with her husband in Auburn. Despite a fall in December of 2006 that put her temporarily in a wheelchair, she’s not only walking again but has also resumed her role as the cookie lady. This woman bakes. At age 88, she gets up at 5:30 a.m. two or three times a week to replenish her chocolate chip cookie supply. “I make a double recipe with eight cups of flour and eight cups of chocolate chips,” she says. Monday mornings find her handing out cookies at three locations of her family’s business, after leaving a dozen or two at an Auburn nursing home.
Ninety-four-year-old Irene Hull still attends meetings of the Communist Party, and distributes the party newspaper at the Labor Temple and her apartment building. She has been active in labor and politics her entire adult life, most lately promoting Washington Women in Trades by posing in their Rosie the Riveter calendar. (For information on the calendar or Washington Women in Trades visit www.wawomenintrades.com.) For Hull, life is about struggle, and about making a difference. “I’m thankful that I believe that we are not just up for ourselves. That we have a responsibility to our neighborhood and our country.”
Fellow calendar girl Violet Russell worked at Boeing during World War II and maintains her membership in the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). At 92, she’s physically limited by a heart condition, but she values reading and discussion to keep her mind active, and still does phoning for CLUW. “I think if you’re interested in the world it helps,” she says. A 1936 graduate of the University of Washington, Russell comments on the many ways the world has changed. “Who would have imagined that we’d have a black man who is aspiring to be president?” she says. “One thing hasn’t changed is women doing comparable work still don’t get equal pay with men.”
Retired attorney and teacher Lorraine Walker takes good care of both her mind and body. Two days a week she works out at the gym with a personal trainer. She volunteers with AARP, Friends of the Library, and takes a variety of classes with friends and family. Although at 85 she has long retired from teaching, she still laments the attitudes of society toward older women. “I never admitted to my classes how old I was,” she says. “A male could be a silver fox, but if a woman admitted to how old she was, they started thinking of her as a grandma.”
Bellevue resident Clare McGuinness leads a disciplined life. “There’s no time for sitting around and no time for television,” says this 85-year-old. Still driving, she’s out of the house every day of the week, working in her parish office, volunteering at AARP in the Fraud and Scam Fighter division, and doing aquarobics at the pool.
These five women are walking advertisements for the findings of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard University, which was the longest study on aging ever conducted. This study followed 824 individuals and was summarized in the 2002 book Aging Well, by the director of the study, Dr. George Vaillant. The good news? While genetics certainly play a part in how we age, research shows that we have control over many factors that contribute to what is termed “successful aging.” Here’s what our interviewees had to say about some of these factors.
A SENSE OF CONNECTION
“Do volunteer work,” says McGuinness. “That way you’re in the company of other people.” Walker agrees. “My advice is stay in touch. Don’t retreat. Find some organization, something you like to do. Even if you don’t like it that much, do it.” Russell, whose health limits her physical activities, says her greatest joy is having family. Her grandson brings her groceries once a week, even though he’s going to the UW and working. “It’s a miracle that he finds time to do it.” Vander Pol remembers her time last year in the nursing home. “My family couldn’t have been better to me,” she says. “I had one son who visited me every day. The whole door to the bathroom was covered with kids’ drawings.”
A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Being interested in and concerned about the lives of others seems to be a theme touched on in various ways by these women. “I have found that people who are concerned only with themselves and their family are not necessarily real happy people,” says Hull. Politics has been her passion her whole life. “My big thing is never give up the struggle. There’ll be a struggle even when we get socialism.” In a different way, doing for others is also part of Vander Pol’s purpose. “I’ve made a lot of soup for people,” she says. “I like to do it; it’s not a burden for me. When you help people, it just does something for you.” McGuinness is also inspired and nurtured by her religious affiliation. “I pray a lot,” she says. “I look for ways to do things the right way and not be downcast.”
A SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE
Every one of these women has a delightful sense of humor. Walker remarks that if she doesn’t send out Christmas cards this year, “people will think I’m dead.” About her picture in the Rosie the Riveter calendar, Russell says it was taken up so close. “It doesn’t look like me! Of course when you get to be 92, you do have wrinkles. My eye doctor was complaining he’s getting old. I said from where I sit, 60 is young!” McGuinness collects jokes and closes our conversation with one. “What did the left eye say to the right eye? There’s something between us that smells!”
A SENSE OF WELLNESS
Our genetic cards are dealt to us; but how we play them is up to us. While these women gave luck its due, they also talked about taking care of themselves. All of them have or had serious walking habits, and spoke of the desirability of keeping their weight down. Walker and McGuinness maintain regular gym or pool dates, while Hull gets her exercise scurrying to one of four bus lines accessible from her Capitol Hill apartment. Before her surgery a year ago, Vander Pol used to walk two miles a day. Now she says, “I don’t always walk good — but I walk. I don’t do it every day anymore, but I try to keep it up.”
How old do you want to be? Since we can’t stop time, obviously it’s not entirely up to us. Yet as these women demonstrate, the choices we make every day influence our experience, no matter how old we are. Staying active and connected, eating well, keeping perspective, learning new things — these are all voluntary. “I don’t want you to think I’m so wonderful, but that’s just how my life has been,” says Vander Pol. But if what goes around comes around, maybe that’s why these women are still here to pave our way.
©2008 Caliope Publishing Company
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