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Aging Well in San Diego

Seniors take part in an exercise class twice a week at the College Avenue Old...

Photo by Kenny Goldberg

Above: Seniors take part in an exercise class twice a week at the College Avenue Older Adult Center.


Americans are living longer than ever. And while growing old is never easy, some seniors manage to make it look that way. A number of local seniors seem to keep Father Time at bay.

— Americans are living longer than ever. And while growing old is never easy, some seniors manage to make it look that way. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg talks to a couple of local seniors who seem to keep Father Time at bay.

Neal LaFrance has been flying airplanes since 1942. And at 86 years old, he still gets a big kick out of it.

"You're strapped to the earth all your life," says LaFrance. "And here you have a chance to break those bonds, fly into the blue sky, into the vast ocean of air above ya, and it's a sense of freedom that's it's pretty hard to come by."

For LaFrance, flying is more than a hobby. It's a love affair. And he loves to build planes, too.

LaFrance served in the Army Air Corp during World War II. Then he spent decades working in the aviation industry.

These days, he goes to his hanger at El Cajon's Gillespie Field nearly every day. After all, he's got a plane to rebuild.

"As a matter of fact, we're building a brand new wing for it," LaFrance says. "These are the old wing panels sittin' up here. And here we have 24 ribs built, we have the spars in here. So eventually, if I don't get too old, I'll go ahead and finish this new wing for it."

A few miles away from Gillespie Field, another person who's aging well is involved in one of her favorite activities.

"Make sure you're out at the edge of the chair, let's work on the abdominal muscles. Lean back, let's count to ten……"

Twice a week at the College Avenue Older Adult Center, 93-year-old Mary Saunders takes part in this exercise class. Afterwards, she and her fellow seniors have a meal together.

Saunders says she's always been active.

"I played basketball 'till I was about 85, with the boys in the neighborhood," Saunders recalls. "I guess there were more boys than girls, so the boys got me out there, just running with them."

Saunders refuses to act her age.

"Well you know, I'm 93 and I consider myself 39," Saunders says proudly. "And so, with the aged I tell 'em, don't be so negative with yourself. Think positively. Think, you know, of the good times you had and the fun that you had. It makes you have fun all over again."

The UCSD Stein Institute for Research on Aging recently surveyed 3,000 seniors. They ranged in age from 60 to 102.

Those who felt they were aging successfully had a common philosophy.

"A majority of them said that the important things were attitude, health, and activities," says Dr. Dilip Jeste, director of the Stein Institute.

He says people who felt they were aging well believed a positive attitude towards getting older was crucial.

Activities that were socially and intellectually stimulating were seen as vital, too.

"In terms of health, they talked about the importance of general physical, emotional, cognitive health," Jeste points out. "A low level of depression was an important predictor of successful aging."

Mary Saunders doesn't worry about getting older. She feels good, and she has a big project she's anxious to finish.

It's a book about her life.

"God brought us here, and when he gets ready he's gonna take us away," says Saunders. "But he doesn't tell us when. So, I said, I better get busy and do this as soon as I can. I'm gonna be like Grandma Moses, if she can finish her artwork in her 80s, I can finish my writing in my 90s."

With the graying of America, aging well is of growing importance in the United States.

By 2025, it's believed more than 12 million Americans will be over 90 years old.

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