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Marilyn Heins: Becoming a nonagenarian

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Talk about landmarks! A birthday approaches: I will soon be 90 … a whopping big number.

When I turned 88, my musician son told me I had lived as many years as there are keys on a piano. I just checked to see how many strings a harp has. It varies, but 47 seems to be the highest. Hard to even remember being 47. Haydn wrote 106 symphonies, so I can think of no musical comparison to make just at this time.

A nonagenarian is a person from 90 to 99 years of age. This is definitely a ripe old age. I was born in 1930. In my soon-to-be-published book, “A Traveler’s Guide to Geriatrica,” readers will note that I was conceived in the Depression of 1929 when my father said to my mother, “Things can’t get any worse than they are; let’s have a baby.” Interesting to ponder that I was conceived in a Great Depression and am likely to die in the decade of the Great Pandemic.

What factors lead to the glorious gift of longevity? The genes we get from our parents. The fact that our parents lived in a healthy environment with both good medical care and education available and earned enough money to provide us with loving attention and good nutrition. Plus wearing seat belts and getting vaccinations and Lady Luck.

In 2010, there were more than 46 million adults over age 65 living in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — a big number that is expected to grow to almost 90 million. Between 2020 and 2030 alone, the time the last of the baby boomers will reach age 65, the number of people over age 65 is likely to increase by nearly 18 million.

Curious about the aging of the worldwide population over 65? According to the United Nations, population aging will become “… one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century.” In the 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects, it is projected that by the year 2050, 16% of the world population — 1 out of every six people — will be over 65.

Interesting and important facts from the U.N.: “The size and age composition of a population are determined jointly by three demographic processes: fertility, mortality, and migration. All regions have experienced substantial increases in life expectancy since 1950. As the life expectancy at birth increases, improvements in survival at older ages account for a growing proportion of the overall improvement in longevity.”

We must wait for the results of future censuses to learn whether the deaths from COVID-19 will have changed these projections.

How does it feel to be this age? I bet it’s better than the alternative, ha-ha! I am managing to live with my elderpains, elderbladder, elderheart, very fragile elderskin, elderhearing, and eldervision. (I do not have the space to list all my prescription medications).

I am still mobile, though very worried about falls. “Moderation in all things” is now joined by “Balance at all times.” Oh, I have to do my balance exercises … back later.

Being alive and aware of this troubled world is a gift and a privilege. We are losing too many Homo sapiens these days. Yes, we are called sapiens (wise), but we are now being outsmarted by a submicroscopic virus, toxic partisanship, and anti-science rhetoric.

I have already told my readers that my partner and I have self-quarantined (except for doctor or dentist visits) for almost five months. We two live alone and sorely miss our previous socializing. We have not entered a store or a restaurant or the Loft Cinema or the University of Arizona campus in all that time. But as of this writing we have stayed well. We are visibly aging but we are still looking at the right side of the grass. And despite our various ailments we try to enjoy our much-changed life on planet Earth.

One more thing I want to share with my readers: One of my idols, Michelle Obama, recently revealed that she suffers from a “low-grade depression” and describes her good days and her bad days. I have always admired the first lady for her honesty and wonderful parenting skills in the White House —certainly one of the hardest places on earth to parent.

My own depression is at least medium-grade for which I am being treated. Talk about good days and bad days! Besides medication, I try to walk outside every morning unless deterred by wildfire smoke or high temperatures.

Laughter is good for the brain and body. If I am feeling down, I go to the mirror and stick my tongue out at myself. If that doesn’t work, I try a square of chocolate. If I feel still down, I take to my bed with a New Yorker magazine or a crossword puzzle. I now set the alarm for no longer than an hour lest I drift off to sleep, unless I feel like taking a nap.

In summary, 90 is like 89 but older.

Dr. Heins is a retired pediatrician who welcomes your questions about people throughout the life cycle, from birth to great-grandparenthood. Contact her at


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