Local 90-year-olds still have spring in their step

Mary Esther Hays and L.C. Warren Jr., both in their 90s, are still living happy and healthy lives.

Mary Esther Hays and L.C. Warren Jr., both in their 90s, are still living happy and healthy lives.

OXFORD -- L.C. Warren Jr. will soon be 94, and he'll tell you without hesitation his secret to longevity: "I don't drink, I don't smoke and I eat the right kind of food, and the Lord's been real good to me in addition to everything else."

Warren is a member of an ever-growing population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's 90 and older population nearly tripled over the past three decades, reaching 1.9 million in 2010. Over the next four decades, that population is expected to quadruple.

Twenty to 30 percent of people in their 90s are in nursing homes and the majority have a disability, reports the Census Bureau, in a study supported by the National Council on Aging. But whatever the circumstances, it is possible to make sure an elderly loved one has an acceptable quality of life, said Donna Miller, director of the dementia unit at Merryvale Assisted Living in Oxford.

"I think they can still have a very good quality of life. It depends on whether they embrace it or not when they come here. Some people embrace it and some people don't," she said, adding that the same is true of people who are able to live on their own or with the assistance of a caretaker outside an assisted living facility. It's important to stay as engaged as possible and continue on with hobbies and enjoyable activities, she said. At Merryvale, all patients, including those in the dementia unit, are encouraged to be active by doing exercises and creative activities such as crafts, along with playing trivia and bingo, to keep their minds engaged.

Warren, who is not in the dementia unit, agrees that staying interested in life has kept him young at heart, and indeed, in appearance. Everyone remarks on how smooth his face is, but, "I don't put a thing on my skin," he said.

"I enjoy living even now, as old as I am. I enjoy being with people. The programs they have here, I participate in every one of them, instead of sitting in a room staring at the television. Although I have been looking at the television a lot now because of the election coming up. I'm concerned with how the country has been going," he said.

Warren can tell you exactly what's wrong with the state of the nation, spouting opinions on everything from education to taxes. Warren walks without the aid of a cane or walker, and even manages to move a heavy table by himself before those looking on can stop him.

Mary Esther Hays, who also lives at Merryvale, is a retired teacher who turned 90 in June. Aside from arthritis that requires her to rely on a wheelchair, she said she's in great health.

"I'm just pretty moderate in all my living," Hays said. Like Warren, she doesn't look her age. Unlike him, she does have a skin care secret: Oil of Olay.

A piano player since the fourth grade, she entertains the residents most every evening just before dinner.

"I give music a lot of credit," in fending off old age, she said.

Hays said she enjoys anything creative, including singing, ceramics and reading.

Hays and Warren are part of the fortunate few 90-plus-year-olds who are reasonably healthy in body and mind. Miller said nowadays, due to economic hardships, more people are waiting longer before entering assisted living homes and are often in worse shape physically by the time they get there. The demand for dementia care is also higher, now that health care has improved, and people are living longer, she said. Merryvale's dementia unit started out with eight rooms and now has 24; another eight will be added next year.

But there's no need for those who have trouble remembering to sit on the sidelines.

"Lots of times a person who can't remember their own family member's name can sing a hymn all the way through without any prompting or anything, and know the words," Miller said. "We have church here on Sunday mornings and an awful lot of people come to church service. They do bingo and exercises and devotions, word searches and word games. We try to keep their minds as sharp as possible ... we try to keep them thinking all the time, to stay in touch with the world and know what's going on."

Miller noted that, "Even someone who can't walk very well and uses a wheelchair can dust, they can fold clothes."

But often, caretakers inadvertently encourage the elderly to become helpless by doing for them what they are capable of doing themselves, she said.

"When you're caring for someone that has dementia, or even someone who doesn't, and you ask them to put their socks and shoes on and it's taking too long, the temptation is to go over there and do it for them because it's making you crazy waiting for them to get done. We teach them to be helpless. It's really important to encourage them to do as much as they can; otherwise they will lose those skills." But, "it's important not to look for perfection," she said.

The most important thing a caretaker can do is "take care of themselves, give themselves a break," Miller said. "Have someone else in the family or if you can afford it hire someone else to help so (the caretaker) can get away and do something for themselves even if it's to go read a book for a couple of hours, because if you're a caretaker and you don't take care of yourself you're going to get down and sick. And if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of them."

Miller said it's not uncommon to see caretakers in worse physical shape than their loved one.

While there are some conditions that go along with aging that can't be prevented, Miller, Warren and Hays all agree that a positive attitude is the best defense against the old age blahs.

"Attitude has got an awful lot to do with it," said Warren, a retired minister. "Every once in a while, over at the hospital, they know how old I am and they ask me if I've ever been depressed. I've never been depressed a day in my life. God gave me life and God's going to take it back when he's ready. All he told me is I need to be ready when he's ready. I live every day just like I was going to live forever. I am going to live forever -- I'll just be somewhere else."

Warren has learned not to sweat the small stuff. Or even the big stuff, like global warming.

"All we can do about the weather is talk about it," he said.

He then added, "You know, I said all my life I didn't want to grow to be a crotchety old man. So many people, you don't want to be around them because they complain about everything."