We all crowded around the dinner table at a restaurant recently to sing “Happy Birthday” to my grandmother, Helen Carr. In October, she turned 91, and much like the Energizer Bunny, she’s still going! As we laughed and talked about her eight great grandchildren, I couldn’t help but wonder about her secret to living a long and happy life. So, I did what any inquiring mind would do, and I interviewed her, as well as another spry nonagenarian, Jean Jones, to get some answers.
The number of nonagenarians, people between the ages of 90 and 99, will reach nearly 9 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Census researchers predict that about 5% of Americans currently living are in their 90s.
The current average life expectancy for women is 80.6 years, and it’s 76 for men. Researchers say life expectancy is increasing primarily thanks to advancements in science and medicine. Treatments for cardiovascular disease and strokes have had a big impact. This also means that a larger number of people are figuring out the keys to maintaining healthier lives.
Even at 91, Helen still regularly attends swim class and ceramics class, where she likes to make gifts for family such as piggy banks and pie dishes.
“I like to make things for the house, and I like to make different gifts people have asked me to make,” said Helen, who has attended ceramics classes on and off for 25 years. “I get a kick out of saying that I’ve made something people can actually use.”
When asked about her swim class, the Chicago native said that along with walking, swimming is her way of getting exercise every week.
“I like the leg exercises that the swim instructor teaches me,” said Helen, who first learned to swim as an adult. “It’s important for people to find activities they like so they regularly get exercise. I really like to walk too. It’s good for me.”
When asked about her secret to a long and happy life, she didn’t want to take any of the credit. Despite outliving her entire family and two husbands, she attributes her longevity to her faith.
“I’ve only made it to 91 by the grace of God,” she began. “I don’t think there’s anything special about what I’ve done. There’s really no secret. I’ve always just tried to eat healthy and encourage my kids to eat healthy.”
She said that there’s no magic behind staying healthy; people today tend to just overeat or eat the wrong things.
“I’ve never ate a lot of meat. I’ve always tried to keep a lot of vegetables in my diet. I like raw carrots, turnips and salads,” she said.
Helen, who lives with one of her three adult daughters, worked for 40 years at a retirement home as a nurse’s aid before retiring at age 83.
“Working has always been important to me. I think that it kept me busy and kept me going,” she said.
Jean, who is also 91, agreed.
“It has always been important to keep busy,” said Jean, who is a lifelong Michigander. “I think the key is that people need to keep their mind busy and stay in contact with other people.”
According to Jean, longevity doesn’t run in her family. She has only had one other relative that has lived into their 90s.
“My mother and father both passed away at age 76, but they were both smokers,” she said. “I guess I’ve never felt like I had a secret to a long life. I’ve just always felt lucky.”
Jean, a mother of two who lives with one of her daughters, still drives every day, goes on Facebook regularly and considers herself to be an avid golfer.
“I golf about four times a week, and I golf in a senior league,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I’ve been golfing with women who are my daughters’ age for about 25 years now.”
Jean, who used to compete and win local senior golf tournaments, said golf is her primary source of weekly exercise.
“I won tournaments when I was 70 and 75,” she said proudly. “But now I’m just out there [on the golf course] to stay healthy. I’m getting in and out of the cart and swinging my clubs all day long!”
After working nearly 24 years for the State of Michigan, Jean says she has kept up with her involvement with the State Employee Retirees Association (SERA).
“Occasionally I attended meetings since my retirement in 1989,” she said.
Jean, who also enjoys traveling and sewing gifts like tote bags and aprons, says her family and her love for golf keeps her going.
“I’ve always tried to just enjoy life. I’ve enjoyed my grandkids and now my great grandkids,” she said.
There seemed to be three common threads between these two women. They both have been conscious of the foods they’ve eaten over the years, and they both have always incorporated plenty of fruits and veggies in their diets.
Another commonality has been the emphasis they’ve put on family. Both spend a significant amount of time engaged with their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and family activities.
Lastly, they both have a strong work ethic and have prided themselves on working the majority of their lives. Their work has kept them thinking and engaged with others.
“I would tell young people to make sure they get a good education to ensure they can get a job they love,” said Helen.
Jean’s advice is different.
“Life hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve always pushed myself to keep going,” Jean explained. “It’s important for people to always find a way to get through your challenges.”
Share your advice or secrets to a long and happy life below.