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Unlocking secrets to a successful long life: 20 personality traits of lively nonagenarians
One woman's exploration leads to a new outlook on old age

Oct. 22, 2012

Nonagenarians - people age 90 to 99 - comprise less than one percent of our state's total population, but their numbers are growing. In 2010, there were 76,545 Ohioans age 90 or older, according to researchers at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University of Ohio. By 2020, well over 100,000 Ohioans will have achieved this milestone.* As our population ages, of course, we are interested in learning what is driving this new longevity and unlocking these nonagenarians' secrets to long, fulfilling lives.

Connie Springer, a freelance writer and photographer in Cincinnati, set out to do just that. "My personal experience with aging had been less than positive," Connie told us. "Over a decade ago my mother, in her eighties and saddled with dementia, lived in a nursing home surrounded by peers with vacant stares and immobile stances. My view of aging became skewed. Do we all end up like this if we live long enough?"

Hungry for a new perspective, Connie interviewed a friend's 90-year old neighbor, June. "A passionate gardener blessed with good health and constantly on the go, June attributed her long life to an optimistic bent and doing things in moderation. 'Don't dwell on your age,' she advised. 'Do as I do - just keep your body moving!'"

Encouraged by June's life approach, Connie searched for others in this age group who were active, engaged and connected. Over a two-year period, she met with 28 "lively nonagenarians." Although the interviewees didn't offer any secret answers to a long life, Connie noted a number of characteristics they had in common and compiled a list she calls the 20 Personality Traits of Lively Nonagenarians:

    Connie Springer set out to unlock nonagenarians' secrets to long, fulfilling lives.
  1. Flexibility (being willing to adapt to new situations)
  2. Having a sense of humor
  3. Living simply
  4. Taking one day at a time
  5. Never turning down an invitation
  6. Doing things in moderation (particularly in regard to food)
  7. Getting regular exercise
  8. Having an optimistic attitude
  9. Keeping mentally stimulated
  10. Being open to meeting new people
  11. Relating to younger people
  12. Being connected to friends and family
  13. Involvement in enjoyable activities
  14. Loving to read
  15. Having a "nothing can stop me" outlook
  16. Sharing and caring
  17. Not thinking about age
  18. Being interested in what's going on around you
  19. Never quitting learning
  20. Being just plain lucky (blessed with good genes, good health, and meaningful relationships)

"My hunch is that these traits leading to what may be called 'successful aging' are not newly gained in later years but rather are ones that these individuals have demonstrated their entire lives," Connie suggested. "As Plato states in The Republic, 'If men are sensible and good tempered, old age is easy enough to bear. If not, youth as well as age is a burden.'

"Although the traits are probably innate, one might attempt to emulate one or more in order to change a negative or isolating pattern. One thing is certain from meeting these lively nonagenarians: I know that the notion that time must inevitably inflict incapacity and despair is fundamentally wrong."

Connie shared many hours with each of the remarkable elders she interviewed and photographed. She explored their pasts, their present and their aspirations for the future. "I am quite certain that my new nonagenarian friends enjoyed the pursuit as much as I did," she said. "These individuals had had a lifetime of interesting experiences and were continuing to be involved and active, but how often did another take the time to sit down with them to talk about their lives?

"Despite having suffered losses and hardships, these twenty-eight individuals consistently participate in their surroundings and maintain an interest in others. They broaden their horizons, continue to think in terms of purpose and goals, and keep their minds and bodies in shape with exercise and stimulating pastimes."

Connie Springer is the creator of a traveling exhibit, POSITIVELY NINETY: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians and the author of a book by the same name (published in 2011). Springer received a 2007 City of Cincinnati Artist's Grant to help fund the project.

* Ritchey, P. N., Mehdizadeh, S. & Yamashita, T. (2012). Projections of Ohio's Population 2010-2030. Scripps Gerontology Center, Miami University, Oxford, OH.

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About Aging News and Perspective

Aging News and Perspective, published by the Ohio Department of Aging, is a blog-like publication that connects interested Ohioans to news and information about issues affecting older Ohioans and the people who care for and serve them. Topics include the latest resources and best pactices within the aging network, state and federal programs and benefits, pending and recent policy and legislation that may impact older Ohioans, the latest research in gerontology and aging issues and more.

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