Celebrating a 100th birthday is still a relatively rare occurrence in this country. But with advances in medicine and the sheer volume of aging baby boomers, the number of folks who reach centenarian status is expected to increase — massively.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 53,564 centenarians or older living nationally in 2010. But by 2050, that number is predicted to swell to 600,000 or more.
“There’s definitely a trend in aging. We’ve seen it as well. There’s more centenarians,” said Matt Reed, senior vice president of the Akron (Ohio) Area Agency on Aging in Green, Ohio.
Though finding a birthday card for someone turning 100 can be a challenge, American Greetings has been making cards for new centenarians for five years. Hallmark has been doing it even longer.
“I get more calls about these (cards) because people finally have someone turning 100 years old in their lives,” said Hallmark spokeswoman Jaci Twidwell.
Keep mind, body moving
What is it like to live that long? We chatted with two centenarians living at KentRidge at Golden Pond, an assisted living facility in Portage County, Ohio.
When asked if he ever thought he would live to be 100, Leon Fenstemacher shrugged his shoulders. It’s in his genes, he said, noting that his great-grandmother lived to celebrate her 103rd birthday.
Hanging on the wall inside his room is a map with pins marking dozens of locations around the world that he and his wife visited. Traveling was something Leon enjoyed with Annabelle, who lived to 97. They were married more than seven decades.
When it comes to reaching the century mark, women definitely have the men beat. Census numbers show that for every 100 women who become centenarians, there are only 20 men with that distinction. That makes Fenstemacher somewhat of an anomaly.
The retired CEO of the former Cleveland Trust bank and lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves is entertained by keeping track of the football team at Ohio State University, his alma mater. Fenstemacher takes his age in stride.
“You should see the woman in here who’s 103,” he said. “You won’t believe it.”
To see for ourselves, we found Mary Denny in Room 103, sitting in her easy chair turning a rosary in the palm of her left hand. With her right, she pointed to her neck.
“Everything is good from here up,” she said, laughing. And though it’s hard to tell, she said the “upholstery” has worn out on the rest of her body.
When asked if she expected to live to 103, Denny chuckled. “Heck no. When I was 50, I thought I was old.”
As in Fenstemacher’s, longevity runs in her family. Older siblings lived into their 90s, she explained. Denny, who pointed out that she still has her “real teeth,” was married to her late sweetheart, Russell, until his passing in 1995.
She recommends that those lucky enough to have their faculties in old age need to keep their minds engaged. “I watch ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Jeopardy!’ Sometimes I win a lot of money sitting right here in my chair,” she quipped.
Denny, a homemaker who spent much of her life caring for others, knows she’s fortunate. Reed, of the Agency on Aging, noted that of those 85 or older, 50 percent are likely to have some type of memory impairment. And with that comes the challenge for caregivers to find what’s best for their loved ones to have a quality life in their golden years.
Like Fenstemacher, Denny enjoys watching sports. She played forward on her high school basketball team for five years.
“Boy, I’m telling ya, those Cleveland teams … I don’t know what’s the matter,” she said, shaking her head. “No, yes, I do know — when they get someone good, they sell them.”
To the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, Denny suggests that they exercise if they want to live to be 100 or older: “Even if that means you have to sit in your wheelchair and shuffle your feet to get around.”
Quality of life
But do baby boomers want to live to be 100?
“Emphatically no, but 85 or 90 would be nice,” offered boomer Michael Tew, 66, who watched his father suffer from dementia before he died at the age of 91. “I watched a reasonably vibrant man lose both his mind and then his body. Life is about quality, not quantity.
“If I have quality to make my own decisions, then life is good. When that passes, I will only be a burden on those around me,” he added.
Bill Hauser also said if he’s destined to reach 100, he wants to do it with a decent mind and body.
“I’m 65, so 100 is only 35 years from now,” Hauser said. “I think it would be great to see what life will be like in 2048 (when he would be 100) and how it has so dramatically changed over the past century.
“I would love to see where we are at as far as health care, politics and how we treat each other. Are our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren doing a better job than we did? Will anyone still write things down or will everything be spoken into a smartphone or gadget? Will we still call everyone ‘dude’?”
Reed noted that the boomer generation is significantly different from their parents.
“Everything from expectations, to the way that boomers use services versus the way that the generation before them used services,” he explained. “I think that boomers are much more savvy when it comes to managing services (such as long-term care). That kind of customer service mindset came up with the boomers. And so, choice has molded the way boomers interact with products and services.”
For instance, when boomers’ parents didn’t agree with a physician’s findings, they often kept it to themselves. “Boomers are not afraid to be assertive and ask questions,” Reed said.
“I think it will be really exciting to see what aging looks like in 30 years,” said Reed. “But we really need to start concentrating now on building structures that are going to support productive and healthy aging.”
Hauser believes that by the time boomers hit 100, a whole new model of public transportation should be in place.
“It needs to be safe and convenient and get you where you need to go with minimal effort. Don’t think the younger generations will want us old folks trying to drive at our age. But why not? After all, we are baby boomers and we are used to doing what we want,” Hauser added.
“Maybe if we are lucky we can re-create a 100s version of the 1960s with good (albeit classic) rock and roll, flower power and the love generation. Guess we would call ourselves the hairless hippies and our theme song will be The Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again.’”