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4 Things I Want by the Time I Turn 90

The secrets to successful aging.

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Mark Butchko
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Two of my close friends, Anna and Eileen, are over the age of 90. The word “spunky” comes to mind long before “old” if asked to describe them. Clear of mind and physically agile, they have taught me valuable lessons on how to live long and live well, as have other indestructible role models inching toward nonagenarian status, from actress Judith Dench, 85 — who still wears a bikini — to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, assessing oral arguments while battling cancer.

Watching them thrive, here is my wish list of four things I want when I celebrate my 90th birthday — in 25 years!

I want to be strong of body.

When Jane Fonda launched her exercise videos in 1982, I yearned to look like her, and began doing her routines, in leotards and leg warmers. Since my 20s, I swim or walk most days and hope to be keeping it up until I drop. I am inspired by my close friend, Anna Greenberg, 91, who drives herself to the gym in her big Lincoln, to stretch and pump iron with a personal trainer.

My husband’s grandmother, Mattie Anthony, died a month before she turned 105. The woman we called Granny believed that “muscles have memory,” that the fact she drove her body hard all her life kept her vital. As a young woman, she rode horseback through rough Maryland woods to the one-room schoolhouse where she taught grades one through seven for 20 years, before moving on to the local elementary school.

After she retired from teaching at the age of 65, Granny kept “bending and pulling and weeding” in her garden and traveled the world, to every continent except Antarctica. “Had I just gone home and sat down on the couch and watched TV, I wouldn’t be here today,” Granny would say. “All of my life I have never stopped moving. The people I know who stopped moving aren’t around anymore.”

I want to be strong of spirit and mind.

While exercise strengthens our core muscles, I want my real core to be indestructible. By 90, we will have buried best friends and beloved family members, often including male partners, who statistically die several years earlier than women. Those who survive adversity have soul power, a will to carry on. They also stay engaged in work they love.

Italian scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini was 77 when she and her research partner Stanley Cohen won the Nobel Prize for their discoveries in the field of neurology. At the age of 100, she still showed up for her job at the European Brain Institute, which she founded. In a 2009 interview with Richard Owen for the Times of London, Levi-Montalcini, who died at 103, said a major contributor to her endurance was lifelong learning: “Always keep the brain active and interested.”

Eileen Cohn will celebrate her 94th birthday this September. The advice of a Nobel laureate is also her ticket to longevity. Before the pandemic, Cohn was still working in her longtime profession, teaching children from kindergarten through fifth grade. She survived colon cancer, four heart valve replacements and pockets of loneliness, having lost her husband when she was only 54.“My career got me through everything,” says Cohn, who lives on her own. “I love teaching so I always had something that got me up in the morning.”

Another secret for her successful aging: “I have a scotch every night.”

I want to stay connected to loved ones.

When gerontologists study the oldest seniors, whom they call “super-agers,” they point to three key arteries that fuel a long life: staying fit, staying mentally engaged and having close relationships.

I want to always have open lines of communication, filled with love and respect, with our four sons. I want my marriage to stay grounded and growing until death do us part. I want to always have my long-held girlfriends, a far-flung circle spanning many states and many decades.

These soul sisters are like family, borne not of blood but of history, love and loyalty. Several of my besties come from summer camp in the 1960s. They knew me in braces and braids. They keep me youthful as we rock the gray together, singing campfire songs we have sung for more than half a century. Turns out these communities of loved ones help us live longer.

According to an extensive 2016 report from the Mayo Clinic, adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure, and unhealthy habits, as we encourage each other to quit drinking or smoking, and to exercise more. Beyond the science, girlfriends offer a sweetness and solace not found anywhere else.

I want to always look my best. 

Between the gym and great hairdressers, the women I hang around with gliding through their 90s dress with flair, wear bright lipstick and in Cohn’s case, apply false eyelashes daily: “I told my kids they better bury me in those lashes,” she says.

Vanity is not superficial — it means self-love and a desire to always put our best face forward, reflective of a strong inner core. An unforgettable encounter I had a few years back was with Gladys Lipton, who began taking art lessons in her late 80s at her senior independent living facility. This fueled a passion for painting, and she had her first gallery show at the age of 91.

Her deco-inspired work was bold and riveting, and so was the widowed Lipton. She was wearing a white caftan and her silver hair was swirled into a French twist. In a girlish banter, she shared she was now dating three men, all younger, and all very different, “to meet my diverse interests,” she explained. “One is for cuddling, one for the theater, and one for Scrabble.” It ain’t over until it’s over.

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