At 90, William Shatner was the oldest person to fly into space when he rode aboard Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket on Wednesday. But the Star Trek actor is in good company when it comes to non-agenarians who defy the expectations of the so-called "oldest old".
Take Jimmy Carter, who recently turned 97 and was building houses for Habitat for Humanity just a few years ago. Or Dick Van Dyke, the 95-year-old actor who was just spotted taking a fitness class.
The story goes beyond bold names, of course.
Consider Palm Springs, Florida-based babe Davidoff: At 94, she continues to run the photography studio founded by her late husband, takes a weekly yoga class, and has an active social life with friends and family.
"When people find out how old I am, they are shocked," says Davidoff.
Maybe they shouldn't be so surprised. The "oldest old" is certainly a booming group: In a 2011 report, the United States Census Bureau said the population over 90 has tripled in the past three decades and is expected to grow even higher by 2050.
Recently, the bureau estimated that the population of 90 to 94 year olds grew by nearly 24% from 2010 to 2020 to about 1.8 million people.
Babe Davidoff, a 94-year-old Florida resident, still runs the photography studio founded by her late husband.
But it's not just about the numbers, say aging experts. It's also about how often this group is as active as the examples above show.
"We are only just beginning to see the possibility and potential of these additional years," said Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.
In fact, there have been plenty of news reports lately from people over the age of 90 who have achieved impressive things beyond Shatner. Think centenarian Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service. Or 99-year-old Hugh Brown, who recently recorded a hole-in-one on an Australian golf course.
Not that there aren't any obstacles to overcome, say Irving and others. Society still has too many firm ideas about the capabilities of the elderly, they argue, pointing out that even the "elders" can take their place in the world by working, volunteering, socializing, taking classes or, yes, fly into space.
"Age should never limit anyone's dreams," says Barbara Shipley, an executive at AARP, the leading advocacy group for seniors.
Challenges in old age
Which is not to say that the "oldest old" do not face physical, mental and other challenges. In its 2011 report, the Census Bureau found that the majority of people aged 90 and over reported having at least one disability and living alone or in a nursing home. The office also found that they have a higher poverty rate than those just under the 90s and older.
For this latter reason, many financial advisors say they are reconsidering their pension payouts. In an earlier era, they may have assumed that their customers would die before they reached the age of 90. Today, they are increasingly planning plans up to 95 or even beyond to ensure customers don't outlive their money.
“You need to think differently” about retirement, says Brent Weiss, co-founder of Facet Wealth, a consulting firm.
Consultants also say they noticed how many of their 90+ clients are so active and connected to the world. “Some of these people pretend they're 60 years old. That's really remarkable, ”says John Bergmann, President of Portfolio Solutions, another consulting firm.
And many others are just preoccupied with leading normal, everyday lives as if age were just a number.
Milt Fisher, a 96-year-old resident of Somers, New York, is an example. As a former art director in advertising, Fisher now works in painting, sculpture and photography and occasionally exhibits his work in exhibitions. He also travels to Mexico regularly and visits the art-friendly city of San Miguel de Allende.
As long as he's healthy, Fisher wants to do "anything and everything" he can. “I'm just using the extra time I have,” he concludes.