Katherine Hobson

Eleanore still does crunches; Astrid, at 100, puts in a 40-hour workweek

Age is often seen as an enemy to be battled or outwitted -- never mind that it's impossible to avoid and that the alternative to growing older is, well, dying younger. But when you talk with people who are nearing or have reached the century mark, still vital, you realize that they have not by running for hours a week on a treadmill, downing vitamins by the handful, or spending their free time in the plastic surgeon's office. They've been too busy living -- working, traveling, engaging in creative pursuits, spending time with friends and family, doing with gusto whatever it is that gives them joy. Lynn Adler, founder of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, a nonprofit that promotes active aging, says that among the active centenarians she meets (about half of people age 100 plus fill the bill, she says; the other half are disabled by dementia or some other ailment), there are common threads, including, of course, good genes and luck: They have a positive, but realistic, attitude about what they can do. Time to give up the car keys? OK, they'll find a ride or use public transportation. They also have a love of life and a sense of humor, often share strong spiritual beliefs, and show a "remarkable ability to renegotiate at any turn and accept the losses and changes that come," Adler says. After all, it's impossible to reach age 90 or 100 without facing adversity -- the loss of a spouse, friends, or even children, as well as medical problems -- head-on. "Old age," she notes, "is not for sissies."

In the portraits that follow, you'll see those qualities in spades. While there is no guarantee that following the example set by these folks when you're young or middle-aged will help you live a long and rich life, doing so will certainly make the journey more enjoyable. So find work or a vocation that inspires you -- paying or not -- and keep doing it rather than abruptly retiring. Be moderate in your eating and drinking. Move the body that you have. And reach out to people around you of all generations. "Being part of one's community," says Adler, "is really important."

Eleanore Miller, 91

Every Monday at 8 a.m., Eleanore Miller leads a class at 24 Hour Fitness in Whittier, Calif., and she knows how to keep her mostly elderly students coming back. "You never pick on someone and say, 'Well, you're doing it wrong.' If you're present, you get 90 percent," she says. "One lady told me her shoulder hurt, and I said, 'Come in, and do what you can.' " Miller has been active since about age 9 (when her mother, concerned that she was "doing nothing" after school, gave her the green light to go play) -- first baseball with her brother as a child in Southern California, badminton and Ping-Pong with neighbors, tennis with grammar school classmate Bobby Riggs (yes, that one), and, for the past 30 years, a regular teaching gig at the gym, where her class combines aerobic activity with stretching and some yoga. Like one of her idols, Jack LaLanne, she's a firm believer in helping people stay active. Recently, she taught a neighbor a series of hand exercises in order to stop a tremor.

That's not to say that Miller -- like most everyone who reaches her age -- has not faced physical hurdles. She broke her hip falling down some stairs and, after a short stint in a nursing home, rehabbed it herself, at home. "I sat in the La-Z-Boy, and every five or 10 minutes I walked to the stove and back. I kept saying, 'Ouch,' but after a while I didn't say, 'Ouch,' anymore. I realized I've got two choices: I'm going to live or die, and in order to live, I'm going to have to lift my leg." (Nor did she want to have to instruct people about the importance of exercise from a wheelchair.) Avoiding alcohol and tobacco and eating moderately, as well as putting fitness first, have kept her healthy and happy, Miller says. On some of her nonteaching days, she goes to the local senior center to exercise, and on Mondays, "I get to the club at 6 a.m. The body comes first. The house will still be there when you're dead and gone."

Elsa Bhrem Hoffmann, 102

Elsa Hoffmann never imagined living past 100. "I never told anyone my age until I was 90," she says. So two years ago, when she passed the milestone, she leased herself a Lincoln and threw herself a party she compares to "a huge wedding," with 180 people and a bower of orchids. (She recently figured she'd "better act my age" and turned the car in.) These days, the Hillsboro Beach, Fla., retiree's days are filled with luncheons, shopping, and bridge. She loves to cook, and she takes care of paying her own bills. And she's just back from a cruise, with fellow members of the Deerfield Country Club, to South America and the Caribbean. Her boarding card, the indicator of whether she was old enough to drink, couldn't fit three digits, so it ID'd her as a 2-year-old, although she was the oldest person on board. "That caused quite an uproar," she laughs.

Hoffmann remembers always being active, always getting together with other people, organizing parties, and concentrating on making other people happy. She took business classes after high school and worked for her father's bakery supply business. After marrying, she helped her husband with the bookkeeping at their roofing business in Westchester County, N.Y. While wintering in Florida, they opened a small seasonal resort and developed an apartment complex. They eventually retired there.

There have been bumps along the way: Her husband died, and she had a heart attack at age 68, which was treated with rest and medication (she says she's always conscious of her diet, though she believes in the occasional cocktail). Arthritis in her back has finally crimped her style somewhat. "I played golf until about six years ago," she says. In her 80s, four months after having both of her knees replaced, she "had the best golf game of my life." But her "golden years are like sparkling diamonds," she says. "Meeting people -- it seems to be as if love is radiating," she adds. "It's a great feeling."

Joseph 'José' Grant, 101

Yes, José Grant was born in 1908. But he still seems to have crammed more into his century-plus life than should be humanly possible. Inspired by an uncle who was one of the first to fly around the world, he became a pilot shortly after the First World War. When the country joined World War II, he was flying with TWA, whose four-engine planes were borrowed by the Army early on. Grant went with them and spent the war flying "generals, presidents -- whoever had important work to do, wherever they needed to do it," he says. After the war, Grant went to Saudi Arabia for two years to be the personal pilot of the king. "He was someone who couldn't say a bad word to you," he recalls fondly. While Grant no longer flies solo, he takes the controls frequently when copiloting his 47-year-old son's Cessna.

During his travels, Grant developed a second obsession: jewelry, namely "puzzle rings," a number of interconnected bands that fit together in a beautiful design and can be insanely tough for the owner to reassemble. "I was so fascinated by them that I started making them for my friends," he says. "We used to say there wasn't a flight crew in the sky without one." He still works at his 62-year-old jewelry business in Stamford, Conn., also with his son.

How did he pass 100 still going strong? "I've always taken care of myself -- I never smoked, never drank," Grant says. "While others were having parties, I always entertained myself. We all have things we want to do." Grant says he follows no special diet or exercise plan but just stays active, mind and body. Above all else, Grant credits his late wife -- they were married for 49 years until her death in 2008 -- for making life exciting. "Ladies make our lives. Men, we're not really at our best until we find that someone," he says. Though he misses her greatly, he's still happy to be here. "I always wake up with more to do than I can do."

Marion Grassi, 92

'Everything in moderation," says Marion Grassi of Hanover, N.H., pondering the key to reaching 92. "Exercise, take care of yourself, don't do dumb things." She did, however, enjoy pretending to be a woman with "a little drinking problem" in a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center program aimed at educating health professionals about treating the elderly. "I was in denial, of course," she says, recalling how she craftily deflected direct questions about her "condition." That was only one of the activities Grassi has joined since she chose to move, at age 76, into the Kendal continuing care retirement community. There, when she opens the door, she's surrounded by people to talk with and things to do. "I have friends who have their dream house on top of a hill, and before you know it, their spouses die, their friends can't drive, and they're isolated," she says. And she had strong feelings about not moving in with family. "That wears on everyone," she says. "This way, I see them, they're in touch all the time, and my children don't have to worry about me."

Grassi, who was widowed at 46 and devoted her time to her children and volunteer activities, reads to a 98-year-old blind friend four afternoons a week -- mostly biographies and, recently, March, a fictional story of the father in Little Women, which led the friends to a discussion of slavery. "If you aren't doing something productive or for other people, why stick around?" she says. She used to do tai chi but recently hurt her Achilles' tendon, so she uses exercise machines at Kendal about three times a week for 15 minutes at a stretch, and she walks to her different activities and always takes the stairs instead of the elevator. ("I had back trouble years ago, so I am very conscious of keeping moving.") Recently, while on a weekend visit to see family in Maine, "we all climbed a hill," she says. "I was surprised when I got to the top, as were they."

Jim Armstrong, 90

It's no fun to think about growing old when you're not there yet, Jim Armstrong says. But he's glad he did. Eighteen years ago, when he and his wife realized that it would soon be tough to maintain their farm in Maine, they moved to the same Hanover continuing care retirement community that Marion Grassi chose. Planning ahead, says Armstrong, lets you "have a really good chance of building a life in the community you come into -- not just Kendal but Hanover. It's a rich environment." He's also pleased with the philosophy of Kendal. Its founding medical director, geriatrician Dennis McCullough, coined the term "slow medicine," a more measured approach to treating the aged that accepts that often, less is more. "If you have back problems, for example, there are all sorts of things you can do before surgery. You don't rush into that until you've taken your time and seen the alternatives," says Armstrong. "When you're older, your body has various ways of telling you with signals" when to pull back.

Armstrong was a classics professor at Princeton University and then, during the wild days of on-campus turmoil over the Vietnam War and the integration of women into the student body, the president of Middlebury College. Because of the excitement and challenges, he calls that period, from 1963 to 1975, "his mountaintop time." He immediately put his organizational, fundraising, and other skills -- "I'm verbal; I talk a lot," he says -- to use in Hanover after moving, helping to launch a local public-access television station and also serving on Kendal's board. Lately, he has switched to regular water aerobics from his beloved tennis; he was warned that he might break a hip, he says, and in the pool, "you can only drown." He and his wife, Carol, whose interests include poetry, are "living a very active life," he says. "If you make a commitment to [a new place], you will find people who will enrich your lives, people you never would have met."

Astrid Thoenig, 100

Don't count on getting a lecture from Astrid Thoenig on how to live to see 100. She credits the luck of the genes -- "I come from good stock." That said, there's plenty to be learned from her example about how a working life that extends far beyond retirement age can provide sustained meaning and purpose.

Thoenig always "liked figures" and wanted a career in business from the time she worked as a teenager at a bank over a school vacation. Except for periods when she was a stay-at-home mother of a young son and then another period after she was widowed and remarried, Thoenig has been working steadily -- in law offices, in accounting practices, at an import-export business. Even now she works 40 hours a week in her son's insurance agency, and this is not a case of a son humoring his elderly mother. She handles the books and double-checks calculations. Once she walks in the door, she says, "we're no longer mother and son. I'm treated the same way and have the same privileges as other people."

Thoenig, who lives in Parsippany, N.J., isn't all work and no play. She's an avid reader and knitter, mostly of sweaters and afghans -- and not the easy patterns, she points out. Going to work, she says, is enough exercise for her; she's never really enjoyed formal workouts. What is important to her is to have a purpose. "We all have aches and pains, but I don't have any time to think about them," she says. "It keeps your mind away from yourself and your little problems."

Louis Charpentier, 99

If you had driven past Louis Charpentier's house in Leominster, Mass., around the holidays, you would have been treated to quite a sight: 260-odd lawn decorations -- snowmen, little sleeping boys waiting for Santa, a manger scene -- that he has carved over the years out of Styrofoam. (The town, which calls him "Mr. Christmas," threw him a 99th birthday party in early December.) Art and design have always been a part of Charpentier's life. The first money he ever made was 50 cents he got for drawing a cow when he was 6 or 7 and lived on a farm in Canada. During the Depression, he passed by a building, looked in the door, and asked what the workers were doing. It was a plastics company that manufactured jewelry, buttons, dolls, and other toys -- and he worked there for the next 47 years. "I told them I could help them assemble and design; they said, 'Come in,' " he says. Eventually, he became head of design.

For the pleasure of it, Charpentier spends two or three hours a day at woodcarving, a passion for the past 90 years. He estimates that he's made at least 200 wooden crucifixes for relatives, and once he spent well over 200 hours carving a crucifix out of a tree with a hammer and chisel. Another time, he demonstrated his carving skills at the Smithsonian Institution, crafting a scene showing three wolves chasing five deer. Any advice for the rest of us? Charpentier says he's always eaten very carefully -- lots of fruits and vegetables, a little meat, and a bit of garlic and honey every day. And he used to lift weights (as a young man he could lift 125 pounds over his head with one hand) and exercise regularly. That's fallen by the wayside lately. After all, he points out, "when you're 99, you're not 20."

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Health - Aging - Sailing Past 90 With Lots Left to Do