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Interview: Ninetysomethings Take Care of Business


Dr. Meika Loe of Colgate University

Dr. Meika Loe

"Dorothy", 96, powers up her computer at least once a day and fires off notes to relatives far and wide.

She is one of a growing number of ninetysomethings or nonagenarians, across Western Europe and the developing world. Statistics Canada estimates that the number of Canadians over 90 will top 400,000 by 2026.

New research by Dr. Meika Loe of Colgate University shows that nonagenarian women use technology and self-care routines to live comfortably and creatively in their own homes. The three-year study is based on 10 women living in upstate New York.

The research was reported in the Sociology of Health & Illness (Vol. 32, No. 2, 2010).

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Loe at Colgate University in Hamilton, upstate New York.

Ruth Dempsey: How would you describe the women in your study?

Meika Loe: The women are all nonagenarians who are currently living at home (mostly by themselves) and making it work, as they say.

They are smart, independent, creative and resourceful. That said, they are a diverse bunch; all have different ways of approaching their day-to-day lives. I would argue that they have a gendered advantage in old age. While many have experienced serious health setbacks and great loss in their lives, most have also perfected self-care routines. They have made friends, asked for help, monitored their health and prepared meals. Because of this, they are well positioned in some ways for aging independently at home.

RD: They were all born before 1930. Has this shaped their approach to old age?

ML: Yes, for one thing, those who grew up in the United States came of age during the Great Depression, and this created an ethic of moderation and conservation that many follow today. You can see this in everything from how they approach finances to meal preparation, to how they approach their days.

RD: In your study, you focus on technology. Why is that?

ML: The stereotype is that the old are technologically illiterate, and this is not at all the case. Indeed, my new book Technogenarians (Wiley-Blackwell) with Kelly Joyce includes articles about elders actively and creatively using technologies like pedometers, while rejecting others, like elder-care robots.

Many of these women have been utilizing everyday technologies like slow cookers, telephones, gardening implements and calculators for decades now. Some are finding that newer technologies, like reading machines and the computer and Internet, are also becoming crucial to leading meaningful lives.

RD: The telephone is a lifeline for many of the women . . .

ML: Yes, "Ruth" says that when someone calls it reminds her that she is alive. As well, the telephone can literally be a lifesaver, as in Dorothy’s case, where an unanswered phone call meant that friends came and found her after a fall. It can also be a reminder of mortality and grieving, as all nonagenarians have lost loved ones and learned about this via phone and mail.

RD: Ruth loves her reading machine . . .

ML: That’s right. Ruth has a machine that magnifies the pages, much like you find in libraries. She was very proud to show me how it worked. She has always used literature as a form of escape into a world without pain and discomfort, and a way to remind herself of her wonderful marriage and years of mothering. Without this machine, she would have to face her own discomfort and horrific memories of the Holocaust 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With the machine, she can glimpse beautiful worlds, live vicariously through the story characters and keep up with the goings-on in her community.

RD: Dorothy is the town’s technogenarian. How does she use the computer?

ML: When I met Dorothy, she used the computer to write cheques (to stabilize her wobbly hands) and do her finances. She also used it to keep up with relatives far and wide and to write her autobiography. She says from the days she learned to type she learned to think on the computer. So, the computer keeps her mentally spry. Lately, she has been experiencing numbness in her hands, but she still uses the computer at least once a day.

RD: "Anna" and Dorothy enjoy walking.

ML: Their approaches to walking have changed over the last three years, but what hasn’t changed is their emphasis on health and exercise. Both have long histories of walking, and are continuing to do what they have always done, to some extent. They make this happen in different ways.

Dorothy, who admits to being increasingly wobbly at 96, now advertises for walking companions at the local college and among her friends. If she cannot find a companion, she will take her walker for stability and just go up and down the block to get fresh air. She says fresh air is vitally important. She also walks around her home, spending a bit of time in each room.

Anna does not ask for help, but because she lives near a bus stop, she sometimes picks up a bus instead of walking. Anna’s secret was finding an apartment very close to a small grocery store, the bus line, library, her church, and other places she frequents regularly. She says that every day there is always a break in the weather for walking. So, she waits out the rain and snow and then takes the opportunity to go.

RD: "Alice" has stopped driving, but she held on to her car and hires a driver . . .

ML: Alice hires a driver to take her and, many times, her friends to the grocery store or out to a picnic location.

For Alice, holding onto her car was a brilliant plan for a number of reasons. Transportation is one of the most difficult issues facing those who age at home. Most feel stranded in their homes when taxi services are so expensive and buses not available. It is easier to locate a driver than a driving service in her area. Then again, dealing with the paperwork of insurance and car ownership is not always easy, but Alice has found that it has been worthwhile to keep her car. And, she can continue to help others by offering rides to the store when she goes, which makes her feel great.

RD: These women love to cook. What is their favourite kitchen gadget?

ML: The slow cooker is by far the favourite. Several of the women told me of the wonderful hot meals they prepare for themselves on a budget and the ability to keep leftovers for the week. They also like sauté pans, microwaves and plug-in water boilers for tea.

Dorothy is always looking for a challenge. She told me cooking was such an important creative outlet for her that she will never eat pre-made or frozen foods. She hires someone to cut vegetables for her and put them in jelly jars. She can then take the cuttings and dream up a meal quickly.

For cleaning, "Mary" is big on the Swiffer, which is a new type of mop that makes cleaning the floor much easier than getting down on one’s hands and knees.

RD: What about medical issues?
Dr. Meika Loe of Colgate University and a ninetysomething nonagenarian!
ML: They are mixed about the many medical options available now. Life extension, for example, is controversial in the group. However, quality of life surgeries, like cataract surgery, are well regarded by most. So it all depends. The array of pharmaceutical products can also be a cause for concern.

Again, we rarely focus on how elders weigh medical decisions. We may assume passivity, but most elders are like all of us, trying to decide what is right and healthy. You might be surprised by how many opt-out.

RD: You stress the importance of self-care routines for aging well. Can you give me an example?

ML: All of us have self-care regimens. These elders, many of whom are widows living alone, continue to do what they have always done to care for themselves. A daily routine makes this flow for them.

So for "Shana", a daily routine of getting up, making the bed, washing herself, having breakfast and reading the paper is familiar. It gives her a sense of continuity across her life. Her favorite part of the day is probably when she works in the garden. This activity also contributes to her health in the sense that she is connecting with positive lifelong memories and ancestors who were farmers. While working on the garden, she says she loses a sense of time. She reaches a sense of "flow."

Each elder has her own set of personal pleasures. For "Florence," it is watching classic movies, bringing back memories of the neighborhood movie theater and her loving marriage. For Ruth, starting the day with a cup of tea is crucial to her sense of health and well-being, as is reading. For "Lore" it is her paintbrush. For Anna it is taking a walk.

So for these women, self-care involves a variety of daily activities that contribute to a personal sense of health and well-being. I should add that today Ruth has a home health aide who helps her to shower and get her morning tea. Dorothy has a morning helper as well, but both still create their own daily schedules and oversee their care.

RD: Finally, what did you learn from your research?

ML: I have learned that nobody can do it alone. I try to make this case in the article and in my forthcoming book, Doing it My Way: Life Lessons from the Oldest Old. In the United States, we tend to focus so much on aging independently that we miss how important inter-dependency can be.

In the final analysis, I think technologies that enable us to reach out to others and engage with communities and other worlds are the most crucial to health and well-being. Policy makers must take this into account, and address the cost of monthly telephone, television and Internet bills in aging initiatives.