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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

At 80 or 90, Life is What You Make of It

Today, as part of our Project Milwaukee series on aging and wellness, we focus on the fastest growing segment of older adults in Milwaukee County – people in their 80s. For that population, life can be filled with financial and health challenges - or not. Many 80- and 90-year-olds are quite healthy and active. As WUWM’s Erin Toner heard from some octogenarians, life is what you make of it.

For 82-year-old Barbara Bechtel, life is busy.

“I’m on the board of our local historical society. There’s so many things, there are just so many, many things. On weekends, during the summer months I go up to Door County. They have a Cherry Fest weekend up there, and I cut cherry pies, and I have a couple of mopeds, so I ride a moped up there, and I’m pretty active with our senior group here. I’m chairman of our Citizen of the Year Award, so that keeps me busy…”

Makes me tired just listening to Bechtel’s schedule…and there’s more. Today she’s serving chicken and potatoes to other seniors at St. Paul’s church in Brown Deer.

“And then in between I have a precious granddaughter that’s 19-months-old now. They come down from Iron River quite a bit and if they don’t come down I go up there to babysit,” Bechtel says.

Bechtel is a retired nurse. She says all this activity keeps her healthy.

“You can sit at home and watch TV and for some people maybe that’s all they can do. But with some people you need a little bit more motivation and I think friends are the greatest motivation you can have,” Bechtel says.

Oscar Kornblum says staying active and spending time with other people keeps him healthy and feeling young.

One of Bechtel’s friends here at St. Paul’s is 80-year-old Oscar Kornblum. He was a pipe-fitter before retiring 20 years ago, but he never really stopped working. For many years, he helped out at a camp for kids with burn injuries. And now, he’s a handyman.

“I do odd jobs for various people and I help sometimes widows or divorcees, minor repairs in their house and that, then I work at the senior meal program, we play cards here, and just keep busy,” Kornblum says.

Kornblum and Bechtel are two of the lucky ones. They’ve lived past 80 and are healthy. Of course, many people their age are in worse shape because of illness or injury.

So what determines our quality of life in our 8th or 9th or 10th decade?

“Um, I think genes are an important issue.”

That’s Dr. Edmund Duthie, a geriatrician at the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. He says our parents’ longevity likely says something about how long we’ll live, and how healthy we’ll be. Duthie says our long-term health is also linked to our environment and to how we take care of ourselves in our younger years.

“A young women who has multiple pregnancies, has not been attentive to her calcium intake, and over time that can begin to wear down the amount of bone she has and so when she hits her menopause, she may not have as much bone mass as somebody else who was more attentive to that, and then is now more osteoporosis prone,” Duthie says.

Duthie says the good news is that many older adults are fit and active, even into their 80s.

“At least 50 percent of older people can shop and do housework and manage their finances, etcetera. So it’s not all doom and gloom. But there are individuals with advanced degenerative illnesses, be it Alzheimer Disease or other things that do need a fair amount of assistance and help,” Duthie says.

A lot of people fall somewhere in the middle, like the Keplers of Wauwatosa. Eighty-one-year-old Mary Kepler was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes two years ago.

“And I absolutely hated the diagnosis. I thought, ‘I can’t be. I’m not overweight, I’m still exercising,’ and unfortunately there it is,” Kepler says.

She does aerobics three times a week. But her 83-year-old husband…

“…is sort of a couch potato. I hate to say that cause he’s supposed to walk 30 minutes a day. But we don’t do it very often. He can’t, he gets too pooped,” Kepler says.

Kepler says her husband has congestive heart failure, but his condition is under control. So life’s not perfect, but it’s good. They have their own home, do gardening and play cards.

The only thing Kepler doesn’t let her husband do anymore is climb up on the roof to clean the gutters.