WEST PALM BEACH
At 93, Esther Gropper is a pioneer in a place few people have been, statistically speaking.
She's reached the far side of 90, a little-visited spot on life's timeline that's poised for a population explosion.
Led by advances in medicine, the number of Americans living to 90 and beyond has tripled since 1980 and will quadruple by 2050.
Fortunately, Gropper has written a road map we can follow should we be lucky enough to get there, called Dance Until the Music Stops: An Inspiring Guide to Extended Life.
"This is a new phenomenon. I'm seeing a new breed of people living with vitality at such old ages," said Gropper, who remains just as vital herself.
A writer, teacher and the former director of the Center for Lifetime Learning at Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College), Gropper started taking notes on the seniors at her Lantana assisted living facility who remain vibrant and engaged with the world.
She has a few rules for inspirational aging. Above all, she said, try to view the inevitable losses of aging through a prism of optimism, curiosity and humor.
Here are some more:
Find companionship. Loneliness is a huge problem in old age, said Gropper.
If you don't live in a group setting, you have to make an extra effort to find friends through a senior center, library group or religious organization.
Exercise the body every day. Gropper walks whenever she can and takes a yoga class three times a week.
Use your brain. "The greatest fear among seniors is not being able to function mentally," she said.
So she and her neighbors go to lectures, concerts and the theater. "After, hold discussion groups and talk about what you've seen," she said.
Keep your sense of humor. At this age, life is tenuous, but "we can afford to laugh," Gropper said.
"Sometimes, we have to see the humor in a situation or sit down and cry, but a quick quip or witty remark is a good defense against depression."
Dress well every day. No frayed pants or frumpy house dresses allowed.
"Dress as if you had a date. When you get a compliment, it makes you feel distinctive," said Gropper.
Find a theme song. Make it something cheerful. Gropper's is On the Sunny Side of the Street, which she hums when she sees or hears something unpleasant or just to give herself a boost.
"Scientists tell us that cheerful people live longer," she said.
Leave the door open for love. Gropper survived two husbands and then had two serious relationships in her senior years. The "mate of my life" died a year ago.
"Love can happen even more intensely at this age because you know your life is shortened," she said.
Offer a cheerful greeting. Never ask "how are you?" If you do, "you'll just hear a list of aches and pains," Gropper said.
Start out with a compliment about a woman's scarf or tell a man how handsome he looks today.
Feeling down is common among seniors, but resolve never to discuss health issues in public.
Have a conversation starter. Stay current on the news and have a short list of topics to talk about when you see people.
Plan your day, every day. Filling the day is a great challenge for people at this stage of life, said Gropper, but having the time to explore new adventures is a blessing.
Get out of the house as much as possible. "You can have a fuller life than when you were younger because your time is your own now. If you're not feeling well, get yourself to a comfy chair and read something uplifting."