Every day in this country about 10,000 people turn 65. And rather than basking in the sun in some pricey exotic locale, many of them are struggling to make ends meet. In 2011, the median income for people 65 and older was $27,707 for men and $15,362 for women. That same year, almost 3.6 million elderly people — nearly 1 in 10 — were living below the poverty line.
The recent recession hit baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, particularly hard.
Yet these realities do not have to presage a grim future. Just because the golden years aren’t what we were promised, that doesn’t mean we can’t create a more achievable image of retirement — a positive one that takes into account new opportunities to change people’s lives. In his book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner studies communities with a significantly disproportionate number of centenarians. These “Blue Zones” exist in diverse cultures — from Okinawa, Japan, to Sardinia, Italy, to Loma Linda, California — but almost all of the centenarians share one characteristic: They are not just alive, they are living.
Throughout his book, Buettner shows the benefits of continued purposeful engagement, whether through work, volunteering, strong social connections, or involvement in a faith-based community. In these “Blue Zones,” older farmers still farm, older physicians still practice medicine, and older parents help care for later generations. These aren’t people who chase youth in the gym; they live in environments where physical activity is built into everyday life. Maybe most important, older adults in these communities aren’t shuffled to the side and ignored; they are respected and treated as learned advisers and mentors. All of this purposeful engagement correlates with longer life and better health.