Ohio author collects tales of ‘lively nonagenarians’Written by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
A positive attitude and a willingness to try new things were common among the nonagenians Ohio writer and photographer Connie Springer nterviewed for a book.
“There’s just a joy of life about them. They’re always ready to experience something new,” Springer said. “They said if they are asked to do something, they can get ready in 10 minutes. They don’t say ‘no’ or turn down an invitation. I thought that was really nice. Even a lot of younger people don’t really do that.”
Springer, a New Jersey native who has lived in Cincinnati for 27 years, is the author of “Positively Ninety: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians.” The book was a finalist in the Non-Fiction Narrative category of the 2012 International Book Awards.
Nonagenarians — people age 90 to 99 — comprise less than 1 percent of Ohio’s total population, but their numbers are growing, according to researchers at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University Ohio. In 2010, there were 76,545 Ohioans age 90 or older; by 2020, more than 100,000 Ohioans are expected to have achieved this milestone.
“It’s fascinating to hear the stories of people,” Springer said. “One woman, who was 98 when I interviewed her, said she only stopped jumping rope a few years before. People do these amazing things. Just because you’re aging doesn’t mean you have to stop what you enjoy.”
Springer conceived of the project after watching her once-vibrant mother isolate herself after the death of her husband, something Springer feels contributed to her dementia and death at age 85.
“Over a decade ago my mother, in her 80s and saddled with dementia, lived in a nursing home surrounded by peers with vacant stares and immobile stances,” Springer wrote in the book’s introduction. “My view of aging became skewed. Do we all end up like this if we live long enough? I needed a different perspective.”
Her first interview was a friend’s 90-year-old neighbor, June, who attributed her long life to an optimistic bent and doing things in moderation, Springer said.
“Don’t dwell on your age,” the woman advised Springer. “Do as I do — just keep your body moving!”
Over a two-year period, Springer met with 27 more “lively nonagenarians,” located through word of mouth. A City of Cincinnati Individual Artist’s Grant helped fund the work.
Most were from the Cincinnati area, but some were from elsewhere, including Detroit, Boston and Washington, D.C. Springer spoke to each person for two to four hours, asking questions about their past, present and aspirations for the future.
She also took a portrait of each person.
Although she didn’t come away with the definitive secret to long life, Springer compiled a list of common characteristics she calls the 20 Personality Traits of Lively Nonagenarians:
- Flexibility (being willing to adapt to new situations)
- Having a sense of humor
- Living simply
- Taking one day at a time
- Never turning down an invitation
- Doing things in moderation (particularly in regard to food)
- Getting regular exercise
- Having an optimistic attitude
- Keeping mentally stimulated
- Being open to meeting new people
- Relating to younger people
- Being connected to friends and family
- Involvement in enjoyable activities
- Loving to read
- A “nothing can stop me” outlook
- Sharing and caring
- Not thinking about age
- Being interested in what’s going on around you
- Never quitting learning
- Being just plain lucky (blessed with good genes, good health and meaningful relationships)
“My hunch is that these traits leading to what may be called ‘successful aging’ are not newly gained in later years but rather are ones that these individuals have demonstrated their entire lives,” Springer wrote in the book’s introduction. “Although the traits are probably innate, one might attempt to emulate one or more to change a negative or isolating pattern.”
Springer stayed in contact with many of the interview subjects. Eleven of the 28 have since died, she said.
“I think it was a good experience for them too,” Springer said. “Older people are so often not used for a resource. People don’t ask them questions about their past. It’s such a shame. There’s so much to learn from people’s experiences and how they coped with things. I feel like it benefited both of us as well as future readers and viewers. It’s very inspirational.”
Springer said she often hears from people that the project helped change their outlook on aging.
“They were feeling sorry for themselves and now they feel like, ‘What am I depressed about?’” Springer said. “It just changed their whole perspective.”
A traveling exhibition, currently on display at Northern Kentucky University, features framed color portraits and excerpts of text from the 28 interviews and is available for display.
For more information, visit www.conniespringer.com.