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Inside the MIT AgeLab With the Oldest Old

Kevyn Burger May 6, 2019
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The 85+ Lifestyle Leaders share opinions, feedback to deepen the understanding of the longest living, little studied cohort

Every other month, John Blair makes the ten-mile trek from his suburban Boston home to the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Blair earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees there and taught electrical engineering at the famed Cambridge campus for ten years before his career took him to a defense contractor, where he was the longtime director of research.

But it’s not a sentimental journey to his alma mater that brings him back to MIT. 

“I like to think that I’m still contributing,” said Blair.

At age 89, Blair is a member of the 85+ Lifestyle Leaders. Since 2015, MIT has convened the panel of several dozen people aged 85 and older for bimonthly gatherings. They participate in surveys, focus groups, interviews, experiments and guided discussions under the auspices of the prestigious MIT AgeLab, which has worked on issues of aging for two decades.

“We think of this group as what we expect to see more of in the aging population. They give us a glimpse of the future,” said research associate Julie Miller, who works with the 85+ Lifestyle Leaders.

The panel has responded to queries posed by researchers, engineers, designers, students and commercial sponsors who’ve sought their input and collected data on topics ranging from the practical to the esoteric. The group has given feedback on finances, fitness, faith, fall prevention and fashion—and that’s just the F’s.

“As more people are living to 85 and beyond, we’re seeing this as a dynamic time of life. We need to acknowledge that one size does not fit all. We need more imagination with our thinking,” Miller said. “There’s not enough research on this group. We now know more about what it means to be 65, but we don’t have enough nuanced information about what it means to live this long.”

More Extended Lifespans

Until recently, surviving into a ninth or tenth decade was rare and remarkable, statistically too insignificant to study. But thanks to the improved medical science that gets the credit for extending lifespans, the oldest old—people 85 and up—now make up the fastest growing segment of the population. Thirty years ago, there were one million of them; by 2016 the US Census Bureau counted their number at 6.4 million and it’s predicted there will be 14.6 million Americans 85 and older by the year 2040.

These elders are often the last of their tribe, outliving siblings, spouses, classmates and, in some cases, children. An American who turns 85 this year has defied the odds. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, they were born with a life expectancy of 61.7 years. (A child born in 2019 can expect to live 82.8 years.) But statistics also show that today’s 85-year-old woman can expect to celebrate seven more birthdays; a man of the same vintage will blow out candles on six more cakes.

As a group, today’s oldest old may have the highest profile in history. Entertainers Betty White, 97, and Dick Van Dyke, 93, continue to perform and Loretta Lynn is still singing at 87. In government, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 85, the same age Sen. Dianne Feinstein will turn on her next birthday. Financier Warren Buffet is 87, as is publisher Rupert Murdoch and novelist Toni Morrison. And Queen Elizabeth II reigns at 92.

Learning From Early Adopters

MIT Age Lab researchers who work with the 85+ Lifestyle Leaders readily concede that their panel of several dozen is hardly representative of the age cohort. Residents of the greater Boston area, these active octogenarians and nonagenarians tend to be whiter, wealthier, healthier and better educated than the older population at large. And since most have a connection to MIT, either as alumni or faculty, they are more technically adept than their peers.

“This group tends to be earlier adopters of new technologies,” Miller said. “Even with the T in MIT, we don’t see technology as the solution to everything, but it does need to be a part of conversations about making increased longevity as positive as possible.”

As a group, the Lifestyle Leaders are described as curious and open to new solutions, which makes the panel valuable to businesses gathering data on how to appeal to the oldest consumers. An international company that produces hearing devices is among the private companies that sponsored research with the 85+ group, quizzing them about products that compensate for age-related hearing loss.

“They wanted to know what features they were interested in and what would make it easier for them to use these technologies,” said MIT research specialist Samantha Brady.

While almost everyone in the group has diminished hearing, only 40% use hearing aids. That’s because hearing aids aren’t covered by insurance, Brady said. So they compensate with affordable options like amplifiers, conversation-enhancing headphones and captioning on their televisions. Others eschew the in-ear devices because “people treat me differently when I use them,” or because the devices are difficult to use, Brady added.

“There are benefits to hearing aids but they identified barriers that might prevent them from adopting this technology. They talked about how the batteries are small and hard to see or install for someone with shaking hands,” she said. “They’d like to see the options with emerging technology be more adaptable.”

A Two-Way Street of Learning

Once recruited, researchers have found that the Lifestyle Leaders are faithful about attending the bimonthly sessions. 

“They look forward to participating. Being in this group gives their lives meaning. We’ve seen them check themselves out of the hospital to be sure they can be with the group,” said AgeLab postdoctoral associate Martina Raue. “They have strong opinions about what we thinking about and working on and they like having input into how products, policies and services are designed.”

That’s the case for John Blair, who joined the 85+ Lifestyle Leaders when the group formed four years ago.

“I would not be going if I did not find the presentations to be stimulating,” he said. “This progression from a 60-year-old to a 90-year-old is clearly worth studying. They bring such different aspirations and expectations.”

Blair was 20 when he and his widowed mother immigrated from Hungary in the post-war years. Today, he lives independently with his wife of over 60 years in the home they’ve renovated to better age in place.

“We’re not as agile as we used to be; now we work on two tasks instead of 15,” he said.

Other than being “a little hard of hearing,” the couples’ health is good. Blair regularly attends a book club, a men’s group and church services and still drives. He appreciates the free parking that MIT offers to the Lifestyle Leaders when they meet; campus spots can be notoriously dear.

“I like to reinforce that the 85+ group really is a two-way street (with the AgeLab researchers),” said Blair. “We receive information as well as make contributions through these discussions. Maybe out of this visibility of our age group will come a better understanding of what we need, not just from a utilitarian perspective but to enhance our desires and interests as we move along the age line.”

Takeaways From the Oldest Old
  • Polled about what makes life meaningful, the 85+ group’s responses were compared with data from other age groups across the lifespan. While careers and work were key to satisfaction in the younger cohorts, helping others, learning and ‘doing what you love’ topped the list for the octogenarians and nonagenarians. They continue to have goals and direction and believe life has value, worth and importance
  • They’re very concerned about transportation. Getting around takes more of their time, effort and determination—and impacts their ability to lead healthy, safe and engaged lives. Since their independence requires reliable, affordable access to essential services, they’re interested in alternatives to driving, from public transportation to ride sharing services to arranging rides through and with caregivers to expressing curiosity about self-driving vehicles.
  • Most want to age in place, but almost half have moved in the past ten years. The biggest reasons for making a housing change were to receive care for their spouse, to live in a place better suited for them, to be closer to family or to save money. The most important features are one floor housing and zero step showers.
  • The single-person household among this group is on the rise. They’re often living alone due to the death of a spouse. Interest in social relationships and having “a sense of belonging” remains strong. Many singles remain interested in romantic relationships. Those who want or have found a significant other say they’re seeking trust, companionship, someone who shares their interests and physical affection.
  • Almost everyone in the group uses the Internet and 60% have smart phones. Many use tablets; they love their iPads.
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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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