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Those Amazing Elders

Check this out – the first former President Bush skydiving on his 85th birthday last year.

Mr. Bush made his first skydive on his 75th birthday and has now promised to do it again on his 90th in 2014.

Last week, The New York Times published a feature story about old age as a never-ending adventure – “adventure” defined as extreme sports or rather, extreme for elders. They cited a 74-year-old who made it to within 1,000 feet of the top of the Mt. Everest before turning back; an 89-year-old on a visit to the South Pole; and another 89-year-old, Tom Lackey, who

“...took up wing-walking. Last summer, he strapped his feet to the top of a single-engine biplane, like the daredevils of aviation’s early days, and flew across the English Channel at 160 miles per hour — with nothing between him and the wild blue yonder but goggles and layers of clothing to fight the wind-chill.”

Hardly a week goes by without a human interest story about another "amazing elder.” 80- and 90-year-old marathoners turn up every two or three months. A 75-year-old salsa dancer becomes a YouTube hit. Three 60-somethings make it to the very tip-top of Mt. Everest prompting this assessment from a climbing blogger:

“Good for these three oldsters. Instead of sitting around playing cards, hanging at the shuffleboard court, or taking a brisk walk around the local mall, they're getting out there and breathing thin air and suffering and having a great time redefining old age in the mountains.”

“Redefining old age.” No report about elders engaging in extreme sports avoids this cliché.

Before I go any further, let me assure you: I believe anyone who wants to take up parasailing, free climbing, bungee jumping or any uncommon sport should do it no matter what their age - that is, as long as their possible need for extra help or attention does not unduly burden or endanger other people who are with them.

Nevertheless, the more elders who are proclaimed to be “redefining old age” by participating in what are usually young people's activities, the more ambivalent I become about it.

Sometimes, as with the 75-year-old salsa dancer, the video feels to me more like exploitation than celebration. “Look at that old granny trying to be sexy at her age – ho, ho,” it seems to say.

Other times, there is a whiff of condescension in reporting on the pluckiness of old people who try operating out of expected range. When 90-year-old Ilse Telesmanich sprained her ankle hiking in South Africa, the Times story noted that “she tried to keep going on the three-week trip...hobbled as she was.”

And when 11 elder overachievers are pulled together in one place – a 92-year-old barefoot water skier, a 70-year-old snowboarder, an 80-year-old surfer, etc. - as on this website, it feels like any elder not "defying their age" by risking life and limb is failing to uphold the cultural exhortation to maintain a pretense of youth until the day we die.

What concerns me, as the number of stories of elders in extreme sports proliferate, is that old people who are content to play cards, read a book or teach a grandkid how to ride a bike will come to be seen as slackers, that if they are not biking the equivalent of the Tour de France, it must be their fault if they suffer a stroke, cancer or heart disease.

It is interesting that among all these stories there are no reports of failure for age-related reasons – a 90-year-old who collapses halfway through the marathon, perhaps, or a 75-year-old motorcycle racer who causes a crash, a ski jumper who is paralyzed in an accident. I don't believe it doesn't happen.

On the other hand, I might be persuaded that these elder adventurers are an inspiration to couch potatoes to at least take a walk. They might even be an inspiration to young people.

But I'm not sure. I just know I'm increasingly uncomfortable about what the message is becoming with each new story about an elder's extraordinary physical feat.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: The Silly Cheese Wars


If I would let these stories influence me, I would get a guilt complex for not being more active. But I recognize that they are stories about rare individuals who inherited good genes. The very fact that they are rare is where the newsworthy value comes from.

If someone wants to risk breaking their neck doing a daredevil stunt that's their privilege. I think they're foolish and that's my privilege. An old woman trying to look sexy just looks ridiculous.

The sensory overload from the mass media is becoming overwhelming! And it's getting worse everyday. And Darlene's correct.......old is not sexy & should be left to the young. Dee

Ronni, I plead guilty. When I see the same seniors sitting around, scratching lottery tickets in the mall, spending money they don't have, I want to ask them is that all there is?

I go to that mall for dentist, bank, messages. I feel bad when I see a senior man take out a crumpled $5, look at people eating, then go spend that $5 on another ticket. He scratches it, no cigar.

Sits staring at food stalls.

On the other hand, after doing a good job, giving 100% to our careers, shouldn't we spend our retirement doing whatever we want, when we want?

I'm the no finish line type. Don't want age to stop me from wing walking or whatever it is.

" She's 96, and she still....."

That's ageism. And it's plain confining.

Why can't we forget about numbers?

The clock starts ticking the day we are born.

Why is it funny to read about a 90 year old skydiver?

Or a 100 year old dancer.

I like to think the feats are an inspiration for any age and I'm trying to inspire my children and grandchildren. No one else. I'm a racewalker, not a fast walker, but a genuine racewalker. (there's a difference) I've completed five marathons and hope to do a few more. And I couldn't do any of this without being 'older'. I had to retire to have the time for training. Some time that is all that's needed...time. And it's the lack of time that keeps my children and grandchildren from joining me.

I despise the articles on senior daredevils and "redefiners." With all due admiration to aging prodigies, all the hype creates a false image of aging and erects false heroes. The real heroes are the elders who trudge through another daily walk or struggle through another physical therapy session, despite pain, because they want to keep moving in order to be available to spouses, children, and grandchildren. The real heroes seek to continue to be of use and to contribute value, even as they confront the usual physical and cognitive obstacles of aging. For real heroes, egos take a step back.

I kind of agree with you, Ronni, but I also appreciate these stories very much. They serve to remind us that old age does not necessarily prevent us from doing physically demanding things.

A 57-year-old friend talks constantly about how she's too old for things a full turkey! She says it's getting too heavy to lift and she'll have to start cooking turkey breasts instead. When I'm with her, I get depressed. The stories you cite, ageist though they may be, balance the brand of ageism that uses old age as an excuse to shrink one's old world.

I don't like the assumption that because some people in their 80's want to sky dive that everyone in their 80's could be that active too if they tried harder. (Some of us wouldn't jump out of an airplane at any age period.) I don't begrudge in any way people enjoying their lives in whatever way they chose but this sort of thing sets unrealistic expectations that not many are willing or able to meet.
Advertising annoys me too when it portrays "Take my drugs and you too will have the strength, energy, and wrinkle free face of youth."

I'm deeply ambivalent about these stories. On the one hand, I read them and just know they aim to make most folks feel bad about not emulating these very special elders -- and that's rot.

On the other hand, here in early aging (62), my "experiment of one" (anyone remember Dr. George Sheehan?) consists, in part, in seeing what more I can get out of my body as it changes. I want to hike some some more mountains, traverse some more distances. Don't need to jump out of any airplane, but I never did.

Like Steven, I've completed some marathons as I aged -- because I find time better now. Steven, you'd blow by me. I don't see myself doing that again, but I can imagine a 50K trail run ...

And then, at some point, I hope I'll know this phase of hyperactivity is no longer ...

I am glad that some older adults love to participate in extreme sports. My own taste is for walking, hiking, dancing and swimming.

I love reading about older adults achievements in whatever areas, whether mountain climbing,Nobel prizes, volunteering or inspiring others with your happiness though you are frail and poor, as another NYT article reported about a woman in her 90s.

Our poor culture is so hyperactively oriented, with so much focus on doing. And yes active aging can be another way to avoid the truth of illness and death.

I love what composer/astrologer Dane Rudyar once said in an essay titled The Beauty of Aging. "Much too often, two of the most characteristic features of the American Way of Life--the cult of youth and physical vigor and the drive toward achievement and personal success--have made men and women regard the natural aging process as a tragedy whose last acts have to be delayed or prolonged at almost any cost...the mirage of everlasting youthfulness... has given greater strength to the fear of death, for death is presented as the ultimate affront to individuals yearning for unceasing achievement and power."

And--Stradivari made his best violins at 92. Continued enjoyment of one's skills and knowledge and a sense of adventure is meaningful at any age.

With all the frozen lakes around this winter, I’d love to ice skate once again. Of course, I’d love to have stronger ankles and wrists once again as well. Watching others enjoy the pleasure that was once mine on the ice is a delightful sight to behold.
These stories stand out because most of us are not doing what they are. They’re not heroes or anything special in my mind only people who are able and have a need to do what they are doing. I’m glad to hear that a number does not stop a capable person from fulfilling perhaps what might have been a life’s dream. As for trying to look sexy…I think a good chuckle is always healthy.

I cannot agree more even though I am very active at 66 - hiking, dancing three times a week, skiing and flying! When I was 40, a younger co-worker said to me that she hoped she was still skiing at my age! I said then and I would say the same to her today, that the important thing is not that you are doing all these physical things but that you remain flexible because life can easily disrupt plans and you have to be able to adjust. I do these things because I still can and I enjoy them, but taking time with a grandkid, having coffee with a friend, watching birds at the feeder - all give pleasure that cannot be measured. And how wonderful to find meaning in it all.

When I was younger, there were always those doing 'different' things and I don't see this as any different. When Bush Sr. skydives, he has someone strapped to him just in case; so he's using some wisdom along with his desire to experience the free fall that he still can afford to do. The problem is the media that has to turn it into an either/or and put down those who don't do it. Most didn't do it when younger either.

Since I have had absolutely no desire to emulate these stunts in my first 64 years, I doubt I will be compelled to 80 to take them up to prove I am not old.

It stikes me perception plays a dynamic role in these examples, in this discussion. (Doesn't it always)?

All my life I've looked at what others have ventured to accomplish with interest. I've always found it fascinating (if shared) what motivated them. Sometimes their choices helped motivate or encourage me. Once in awhile they made me laugh. Now and then the 'adventures' of others have caused me to review limitations I was imposing upon myself for no solid reason. Tho I promise you will not find me base jumping or snake handling, lol.

Seeing what other people sought out to accomplish at any point in their life fascinated me in my 20's, 30's, 40's and continues to in my 50's. It seldom did or does occur to me that what others did (or didn't)strive for or accomplish was a standard of measure I needed to use in my life.

Just last week a student of mine expressed (surprised) interest in the fact that in my 50's I was working 14 hour days in my studio. I didn't share that fact with her to infer she was or world be a slacker if at my age she didn't do the same. Rather I shared it to say/show age (alone) doesn't necessarily equate to limitation, deterioration or despair in work or otherwise.

Sorry to run on at the keyboard, lol.
As so often it's intriguing and thought provoking to read all the various (and equally valid) points of view on a topic here at TGB!

Faye, I am with you. Other people's stories, even those whose accomplishments are what some would call mundane, have always fascinated me. The motivation, overcoming hardships, choices made -- every person has a great story if you have the privilege to dig deeper.

I agree with Nance 100%. "The real heroes are the elders who trudge through another daily walk or struggle through another physical therapy session."

I see a lot of that in Florida - People with canes and walkers going places, doing things, it's not easy for them but they are living life as best they can!

From what definition are they "redefining" old age? Or are they simply living it? I am almost 35. Some people my age are living extreme sports. I am raising a child and working as a computer programmer.

Yes, the percentage of people in extreme sports, sports in general, high-exertion lifestyles, etc., may decline as we age...but the fact remains that there are people who are sedentary, moderately active, and very active in each age group. There are people who have very safe and very risky activity lists, and an awful lot of people in the every age group.

Why, exactly, do they need to "redefine" old age? Age is about how many years you have lived, not what you do during this one.

My $.02 anyway....

Sorry, I think old IS sexy. The older I get, the more attractive older people become! Not that young ones aren't sexy, too, but sexy is a matter of attitude more than age...

And I do strength training, yoga and pilates, and am lifting more weight now than 10 years ago. So age doesn't have to mean decline, it can as easily mean strengthening.

I was on a panel this week and the moderator asked, how do companies reach older people?

I answered that age has nothing to do with how technical a person might be.

Then I talked about my mom as an example.


Having never been athletic in my youth, I am not interested in trying to prove myself but do enjoy seeing other people do what makes them happy. I am of the mind that says "find your own joy in life" - because there is no dress rehearsal...this is it!!!

My response to these stories is not the same. Between caregiving and a bum knee I was very sedentary. I had to work at getting back to what normal functioning would be for 69. It took me a few months to achieve a 20 minute mile which was my goal. I amazed myself by going beyond that goal. I walked two miles yesterday over uneven ground and I couldn't have gone a quarter of a mile this time last year. I think my accomplishment is just as meaningful as those elders you write about. They set their goals and then achieved them. I won't be jumping out of any airplanes as I refused the opportunity when I was 40 so why would I change my mind now. But I would like to take a hot air balloon ride. Perhaps for my 70th birthday I'll do that.

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