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Susan Washburn hiking with her dogs

Onward and Upward

The importance of keeping mind, body, and spirit engaged on the journey toward advanced age

Susan Washburn ’60 took the words to heart: Never slow down. If you slow down, you rust out.

She first heard the advice as a Ph.D. student in her late 20s, working with retirees as part of ethnographic research in a California community. And for the most part, staying active hadn’t been a issue—in fact, she found it hard to sit still. She played sports as a child, skied throughout adulthood, and always, always hiked regularly in the woods with her dogs.

But then a mental roadblock stopped her in her tracks: the big eight-oh.

“For some reason, the psychological impact of becoming an octogenarian caused a horrible shift in my outlook on life,” Washburn recalled mere months after marking the dreaded birthday. “Or maybe it was the torn meniscus in my right knee and a surprisingly bad bone-density test, tangible proof that my heretofore healthy body was not immortal. At any rate, I could no longer envision a positive future. Images of death, degeneration, and loss invaded my consciousness.”

It’s not an uncommon response to the milestone, says May Thomas ’76, a retired geriatrician and health coach in New Jersey. With 80 being about the average life expectancy in the United States, “mortality can smack you in the face,” she says.

But there’s no need for that number to cast a pall over a positive outlook. Despite a recent dip in lifespan, Americans are generally living much longer than they did a century ago. The 90-plus demographic is the fastest-growing segment of the population, and more than half of babies born in the U.S. today are expected to live to become centenarians.

A prime focus now among experts is on adding years of living to those years of life. For Washburn and others, staying active—physically, mentally, socially, emotionally—has helped push them past obstacles of growing older. And alongside them have been Swarthmorean researchers, entrepreneurs, and volunteers, supporting them through the aging process.

‘A Drive to Live’

A conscious change in attitude pulled Washburn out of her funk: Why dwell on a number when there were so many positive aspects to her life? Newly relocated from New Mexico to Colorado to be closer to family, Washburn made other moves to improve her outlook: She got hyaluronic acid injections in her creaky knees, began a program of nutritional supplements to build new bone, and, with the blessing of her orthopedist, went back to (judiciously) skiing moguls.

“I now think of my physical self,” Washburn reflected, “as an old but high-quality car, a Mercedes perhaps, requiring more frequent maintenance and possibly some replacement parts, but still capable of a few good road trips.”

Positivity and a person’s state of mind are central to healthy aging, says Thomas, who still speaks on geriatric-care topics. No matter a person’s function or general health, everyone needs a purpose in life—“something that gives you a drive to live”—such as volunteering, caring for a pet or loved one, or visiting with grandchildren.

Socialization, intellectual development, sleep, and routine health care are also key, Thomas notes—as are, of course, nutrition and exercise.

“We know what’s healthy, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do,” she says. “To be healthy in your 80s, you have to be living a healthy lifestyle for years before that, because it’s what you do 20 to 30 years before—even a decade before—that has an impact on 80.”

Claudia Kawas ’74 understands that perhaps better than anyone. As co-principal investigator of the 90+ Study, the geriatric neurologist and researcher has dedicated her career to tapping into the secrets of the “oldest old”—a population that’s expected to quadruple in the next 20 years. The study, at the University of California, Irvine, analyzes the health and cognition of current 90-somethings and compares it against their individual medical and lifestyle data collected in a 1981 survey.

“In the last century, we added about 27 years, on average, to life expectancy,” says Kawas, Swarthmore’s 2018 McCabe Lecturer, recalling how there were once so few U.S. centenarians, President Richard Nixon could acknowledge each one of them personally. “Now, all of a sudden, this group of individuals that was so small that the president could take time to write a birthday card to them, becomes literally millions of people about whom we know nothing.”

With help from her team’s research, that’s changing. Among the surprising findings of the study: Participants who drank moderate amounts of caffeine or alcohol lived longer than those who didn’t. Individuals with an overweight BMI in their 70s lived longer than their underweight or normal peers. And as little as 15 minutes of exercise a day was related to a mortality benefit 30 years later, though 45 minutes was optimal.

A primary focus of the study, however, is on dementia—its onset, effects, and epidemiology. Although some of the results have been promising, such as that 80-year-olds today are less likely to develop dementia than those of 25 years ago, the risk is still very high, with 40 percent of 90-year-olds suffering memory loss. Kawas is hopeful that autopsies now being done on the brains of former participants, donated to the 90+ Study for further research, will advance the understanding of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and maybe one day lead to a cure.

“When people say they don’t want to get old, what they really are saying is that they don’t want to be disabled,” says Kawas. “Disability can happen at any age, but it definitely becomes more common the older we get. Ideally, we want to figure out how to improve the quality we want for those years.”

Care and Camaraderie

When Bob Barr ’56 began planning for his later years, he and wife Nony envisioned life in a community somewhat like Swarthmore, where he made his career for more than three decades. They found it at Foulkeways at Gwynedd, a Quaker-founded continuing-care retirement community for age 65+, about 30 miles from his beloved College.

“We’ve been able to keep up with old friends for longer than I thought we would, but it’s also been great to be part of a different family,” says the former dean of men and dean emeritus of admissions, a 15-year resident of Foulkeways. “It’s a nice combination of hanging on to some of the things that matter to us from the past, and being resilient enough and energetic enough to explore new ideas and new thoughts and new people.”

The range of activities offered at the community was a draw for Judith Leeds Inskeep ’60, who moved to Foulkeways with her husband in 2007. Most mornings she wakes to a full itinerary: Wimbledon and water volleyball; gardening and chorus rehearsals; meetings for the field trips committee and the music committee and the bulletin committee and the recycling committee, for which she’s chair. In between, she tries to read or visit the fitness center.

“It’s really more than I can do well,” she says with a laugh, “and I’d like to lay down at least one of those responsibilities. But that’s something I’m not good at.”

The packed schedules retirement communities offer is part of their appeal, providing residents with the intense, purposeful socialization that makes for successful aging, says Phil DeBaun ’85, Foulkeways’ CEO, who coincidentally was admitted to Swarthmore by Dean Barr. (“I often like to remind Phil of the source of his success,” Barr quips.)

“Whether it’s learning to draw or paint or throw pots or do calculus with your new friends,” DeBaun says, “it’s living in community and being in a rich social environment as an older person that makes all the difference.”

On-site medical services make a difference, too. Five years ago, while on a hiking trip with his wife in Panama, Barr suffered a horrific accident. The avid birdwatcher stepped back off the trail and fell off a ledge, breaking his neck, among other injuries.

After nine months of recovery, Barr relearned to walk, though his physical activities are somewhat limited. He still birds in the woodland on Foulkeways’ campus and works out three days a week to maintain his strength and range of motion.

Barr knows how different things might have been had he not had easy access to physical therapy.

“It would have been much more difficult for my wife,” he says, praising the physical and emotional support he received after his injury. “Given the predictions the doctors had when it all happened, I’ve done really well.”

Inskeep, too, is grateful to have moved in when she did, at age 69. Now 81, with just some minor aches and pains, she says a move these days would be a much bigger undertaking.

She recalls a saying from a similar senior living establishment: “When you’re ready, it’s too late.”

It Takes a Village

For many older adults, though, a retirement community is not an option—whether out of personal preference, financial concern, or simply the desire to remain in a longtime home. In the Washington, D.C., area, Laurie Welch ’73 volunteers with a local organization that supports seniors as they age in place.

“I’ve always thought it would be nice to stay in my house until the end,” says Welch, co-president of the Village of Takoma Park, Md. “I want my friends to stay, too, so we can get old together. So I figured, let’s help make our Village functional, and make sure it’s there when I need it.”

Growing from a single Boston neighborhood two decades ago to more than 200 groups today, the Village model provides transportation, home repairs, social opportunities, and other services to seniors for a modest fee. In Takoma Park, an affluent D.C. suburb, all members—both volunteers and the residents they assist—contribute $25 annually to keep the Village running. The group purposely keeps the fee low to ensure residents who are at the most risk receive the care that they need.

“We end up finding people in this really wealthy town who haven’t been out of their house because they can’t go down the stairs anymore, and they don’t have kids who live nearby,” says Welch, a retired physician. Depending on the situation, the Village has employed the help of Rebuilding Together, the Montgomery County Office of Aging, and other agencies to provide assistance for their seniors.

The Village has also helped unite the greater Takoma Park community by bridging its economic divide. A mile away from million-dollar homes are high-rises housing a largely low-income, predominantly immigrant population. And while many older homeowners are comfortable financially, the wealth of others is tied up in their house’s equity. Part of the Village’s mission, as Welch sees it, is to combat the effects of gentrification that push residents from their homes.

With about 250 members ranging in age from 26 to 95, the Village of Takoma Park is still relatively small, but Welch sees plenty of room to expand. She’s held cocktail parties to spread the word among neighbors and hopes to begin recruiting high schoolers in need of service hours for graduation.

“Our town has an ethos of being very connected and community-oriented,” she says. “There is this nice feeling among members that everybody’s helping out. In the long run, we’re helping to build the kind of place where I like to live, and I want to stay.”

First-Rate Second Acts

There’s much to gain from intergenerational connection, says author and social entrepreneur Marc Freedman ’80. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, he notes, older people who connect with younger generations are three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to do so.

“I’m convinced that the real fountain of youth is not in a test tube or some high-tech firm,” says the president and CEO of, an innovation hub that supports second acts for the greater good. “The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth. It’s through connecting with younger generations and passing on the lessons we’ve learned from life.”

As Americans’ lifespan has expanded, a new life phase has emerged, says Freedman, who explores this phenomenon in his recent book How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations. Not elderly yet not in midlife, these retired adults in their 60s and 70s are rewriting the map of life in our multigenerational society, he says.

Through fellowships, prizes, and innovative programs, encourages postretirement pursuits—both volunteer opportunities and second careers—at the intersection of passion, purpose, and (often) a paycheck.

“As we get older, we need to feel that what we’ve learned from life is living on in younger generations,” says Freedman. “And young people are in need of guidance and support. The needs and assets of the generations fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”

George Hartzell ’55’s unofficial second act led him to the classroom—at least temporarily. After retiring as a surgeon at age 66, Hartzel enrolled in Pennsylvania’s Guest Teacher Program to work as a substitute for grades K–5. His years of teaching residents at a community hospital left him wondering whether kids learned differently from adults.

“I found out they do learn differently,” he says with a laugh. “Or at least they don’t pay attention as well.”

For eight years, Hartzell enjoyed the challenge and change of pace, filling in for teachers three or four days a week. When the 2008 recession hit, however, those substitution calls all but stopped, as professional teachers who had chosen to stay home with their children returned to work to help support their families financially.

“I felt that I still had some mileage left,” says Hartzell, “and I wanted to make a contribution.”

So he re-emerged from medical retirement—swapping surgery for primary care.

The physician-patient relationship of internal medicine had always appealed to Hartzell, and the field felt like a better fit for this stage of his life—without the 3 a.m. wakeups and long days on his feet that he endured as a surgeon. But first, he would need to be recertified—a 10-month process that was trying, but ultimately gratifying.

After undergoing a cognitive screen by a psychologist, Hartzell completed a 60-hour review course, followed by a test from the National Board of Medical Examiners. He then finished a six-week preceptorship in family medicine before being evaluated by a teacher in the residency program. Approved by the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and insurance companies, Hartzell began his primary care practice, working part time with an internal medicine group.

“I have a half-hour per patient, so I don’t have to rush them through their visits,” says Hartzell, who sees 10 to 12 patients a day. “I can sit and talk to them and practice the way old country doctors used to. I’ve made a lot of good relationships with people, knowing their families and listening to their stories. It’s a very enjoyable experience.”

Beyond those interactions, Hartzell says he’s also benefited mentally from his return to medicine, as neurons that were in a resting state became reactivated. Nine years later, though, he is ready to retire for good, with plans to step away later this year at age 85.

“I didn’t expect to live this long—I was surprised,” Hartzell says. “I had a high-tension job for a lot of years; I needed heart surgery. I never planned to die, but I never thought I would live into my 80s.

“I did, though.” He laughs. “And so now I have to deal with it.”

Just Keep Moving

From her new home in Durango, Colo., Susan Washburn acknowledges she’s made one concession to aging: purchasing a house in a suburban neighborhood instead of another country property. There, she has joined a local book club, has started a writers’ group, and is training her 4-pound Yorkie as a therapy dog for hospital visits.

She’s also situated herself close to things that she loves: her daughter and four grandchildren; a downhill ski resort and a community recreation center with yoga classes; and forested trails for biking and hiking, her dogs leading the way.

Through it all, Washburn consciously stays in motion, with no plans to slow down.

“I don’t think of it as trying to stay young,” she says. “I just can’t imagine not being active.”