Talk to Martha Deevy for five minutes and you come away with the distinct feeling that no one should "go gentle into that good night."
"One of the biggest shifts we have to make as a society is that aging is not a problem, it's an opportunity," she says from sunny California, where she's the senior research scholar and director of the financial security division at the Stanford Center on Longevity, a think-tank dedicated to maximizing one's golden years.
"We sometimes sound like Pollyannas, but the feeling is that these extra years are tacked onto old age. And we really like to say, 'No, they're tacked onto middle age,'" Ms. Deevy says.
"We are certainly living longer than in years past. We think these years could be – for everybody – active and productive years."
Ms. Deevy says that despite big strides in medical research allowing seniors to successfully manage chronic conditions well into their 80s and 90s, and with life expectancy at 79 for men and 83 for women, according to Statistics Canada, the idea that retirement isn't a period of mental decline is tough to dispel. And it's a belief that has affected the way work is structured, from the rigidity of how jobs are performed to how seniors participate in the workforce.
"None of our social structures have changed to accommodate that," Ms. Deevy says. Despite their better health and fitness, "people are encouraged to leave the workforce at the same age that they were 50 years ago. Most people say they want to retire at 67 – not 64."
Many are content working well into their 70s, she adds – a function of needing to socialize as much as needing a paycheque.
Michael Gordon, director of medical ethics and medical program director of palliative care at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, is one of them. At 74, he's not slowing down at all – and has no immediate plans to do so. He's contemplating the renewal of a five-year term in his department. "Working gives me meaning in life. And [finding meaning is] the essence of the whole retirement business," he says.
Dr. Gordon says that many people are simply unprepared for the extra time they end up with. "The human species really isn't prepared for living so long," he says. "Now we have all this time – so what do you do with it?"
What indeed? Researchers agree that maximizing one's senior years comes down to several simple things. The first is whether you have enough money to keep you going.
According to Ms. Deevy, socking away money for retirement has few converts. And given we'll be spending an average of 22 years in retirement by 2050, having sufficient retirement savings is critical.
Second, friendships need to be maintained and managed. "The really successful people in later years have social context," says Dr. Gordon, meaning they ensure they're surrounded by friends and acquaintances. "Always have a supply of people," he says, to avoid isolation and the mental health and cognition problems that accompany it. "Create that social milieu."
Fitness, too, is key, but not to the degree many believe.
"What kind of exercise? It doesn't really matter," says Howard Bergman, chairman of the department of family medicine and a professor of geriatric medicine at McGill University in Montreal. He says as long as someone is doing some form of exercise – whether it's walking, running or yoga – while eating a healthy diet, that should keep them in good stead. His advice? "Keep active physically, socially and intellectually."
Dr. Bergman says chronic disease management is also vital. "What you want to avoid is developing chronic disease – that's what does you in, in the end."
To prevent the onset of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, he recommends that seniors check in with their family doctors regularly to monitor blood sugar, blood pressure and weight.
And he suggests not waiting until retirement to make big changes; following a healthy, active lifestyle earlier can equip you for the long run to the finish line.
"You can't say, I'm 40 or 50, the horse is out of the gate and it's too late," Dr. Bergman says. "Your health and wellness now will contribute to your health and wellness later."