Elderly Hiker Defies Odds

As we hiked up the steep trail, nine of us, ages 12 to 85, formed a long line. Deep in the heart of California’s Trinity Alps Wilderness, we climbed from our base camp of 5,000 feet toward the wildflower- and snow-dotted meadows at 7,000 feet. Covered in sunscreen and carrying day packs and newly whittled walking sticks, we plodded along rocky narrow trails, climbed over fallen trees and waded through rushing streams.

Nimble footwork, stable joints, strong quadriceps and cardiovascular power were key. As we struggled with the altitude and terrain, none of us middle-aged folks dared a peep of complaint. Why?

Simply put, Jean, 85, never, ever fussed. In fact, she maintained a quick stride, keeping pace with the rest of us. Whenever someone pointed out her incredible stamina, she shook her head and exclaimed, “Why, this isn’t anything at all!”

Once I replied, “Many folks your age and younger struggle with chronic illnesses that keep them homebound, or that permit only gentle exercises like walking or water aerobics. And many your age are confined to nursing homes.”

She answered, “Well, I’ll admit that I’m stubborn. But most people my age can do this. I’m typical. You’re accustomed to a very small part of the population.”

How did Jean hike these steep trails? She worked out a routine with her daughter and granddaughter, both also hiking with us. Jean used one ski pole as a walking stick, wore sturdy climbing shoes, and avoided the intense sun by leaving early and returning later in the day. She usually hiked about three-quarters of the uphill trek and then settled herself under a shady pine tree. She rested, read, ate lunch, and relished the rugged mountain and long valley views. After we reached the summit and returned, she joined us for the descent. To assure we wouldn’t pass her by, she placed her blue fanny pack and the ski pole in the middle of the trail.

Perhaps I’m too influenced by my work with the very frail or ill, but I don’t believe Jean’s alpine mountain climbing skills are common for her age. This much I know: The population over age 85 is considered the “Oldest Old”; approximately 47 percent suffer from some form of dementia. Furthermore, most skilled-nursing-home dwellers are older than 85.

I also checked the U.S. Census Bureau report for 2000 (www.census.gov). its report, “We the People: Aging in the United States,” issued in December 2004, covers only civilian, noninstitutionalized elders. It says, however, that 72 percent of folks older than 85 reported a chronic substantial limitation with one or more basic activities such as walking, climbing stairs, lifting or carrying.

Jean is not typical. She is wonderful company, very determined, brave, and perhaps lucky to have avoided some of the “biggies” such as heart disease, Parkinson’s, and degenerative joint disease. What do you think?