As Elna Ponto’s motorized wheelchair zooms through the grass outside her Overland Park retirement home, her excitement is reminiscent of someone much younger than 97.
For the past 10 years, Ponto has been pushing for prairie restoration at Tallgrass Creek Retirement Home. She represents a growing demographic in Johnson County of the “oldest-old,” or 85 and above. The population of 85-year-olds and older increased in the county by almost 3,000 from 2000 to 2010, mirroring a national trend of growth.
“See the buffalo grass?” Ponto asked. “Their roots go 15 feet deep. I may need a wheelchair to be out here now, but I cannot imagine slowing down. But not everyone is as adventurous as I am.”
Although she has never given much thought to longevity, Ponto said staying passionate and active in nature over the years has kept her going. Largely thanks to the efforts of a nature club she helps lead, a native prairie garden was established on the grounds in 2010.
“It’s in your soul when you get involved in the depths of nature,” she said. “I have a vision here of bringing people and nature together. There are many days when I don’t feel my age, especially when I know there is work to be done.”
As Johnson County continues to age, 97-year-old activists, as well as hikers, gardeners and volunteers well into their 80s and 90s, will become common sights.
Johnson County as a whole is getting older. Its 65-plus population made up 10.9 percent in 2010 and already 12.2 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Census.
Although similar statistics aren’t kept for the oldest-old, growth in that age group is expected to mirror the 60-plus residents, said Daniel Goodman, director of the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging.
The total Johnson County population is expected to increase 57 percent from 2010 to 2040, but the 60-plus group will more than double in that time frame. They will make up about 24.2 percent of the county’s population in 2040, according to the Johnson County Commission on Aging.
“People are tending to age better and live longer,” Goodman said. “We know this population is getting larger here, and it’s happening nationally, too.”
According to the U.S. census, the oldest-old age group throughout the nation is projected to grow from 5.9 million in 2012 to 8.9 million in 2030.
When Annabeth Surbaugh, a former county commissioner, became active in county issues in 1979, she said Johnson County was a much younger community.
“When all the baby boomers started to retire and need services, it really overwhelmed the county,” Surbaugh said. “We need many more services and programs now than we ever have.”
Johnson County also has seen the effect of aging in an increase in assisted living homes, Goodman said.
“We have an abundance in comparison to other counties,” he said. “And we will need them as our population continues to age and less and less can live at home.”
When Elvin, 92, and Margaret Miller, 95, first moved to Lakeview Village in Lenexa 20 years ago, the retirement community consisted of one building. There are now five buildings and multiple cottages across its 100 acres.
“The expansion has been incredible,” Elvin Miller said. The Millers have been married for 30 years and said they enjoy volunteering at Lakeview, cooking and gardening together.
“I think that’s a key to longevity — being involved,” Elvin Miller said. “Retirement seems to be pretty busy here.”
Bob Hamilton, 91, is also a resident of Lakeview Village and went skydiving with a group from the retirement community a year ago.
“I was the oldest person who jumped that day,” Hamilton said. “I’d flown a fighter plane for the Navy, but I had never done anything quite like that. It was a nice jump, and floating down was smoother than I thought it would be.”
A continued vitality and interest in new things is essential to aging well, Hamilton said.
“As you get older, your body does fizzle out, but it is still capable of more than most people my age use it for,” Hamilton said. “Staying active is important for your body, but as for your mind, curiosity is important.”
Intellectual stimulation, diet and exercise all are factors that have contributed to people living longer, said James Sebghati, a doctor at the Internal Medicine Association of Olathe.
“My pool of patients has definitely gotten older,” Sebghati said. “Compared to when I started here in 2000, I didn’t have nearly as many patients in their 90s as I do now.”
There’s growing older, and then there’s continuing to thrive in old age.
Sometimes simple genetics help.
Fern Coffin, who will turn 100 in October, said she never expected to live that long, although her father did tell her it was in the family blood.
“My dad was 97 when he died,” Coffin said. “He always said we had Viking in us and that was the reason for our long lives.”
Coffin lives with her daughter in Olathe and joined the family in a road trip to Colorado this month. In an interview before the trip, Coffin said she was looking forward to walking in the mountains that she and her husband, Jim, visited every year before he died in 1998.
“Jim and I have walked most of those mountains,” Coffin said. “In our late 60s, we climbed Mount Elbert. In preparation, we walked around Lake Olathe about 100 times. We were in prime condition.”
Coffin said she has continued to enjoy walking in nature and traveling with her family, When she was 89, she and her daughter, Katherine, walked most of the way up Flattop Mountain in Estes Park, which has a peak of 12,324 feet.
Challenging herself both physically and intellectually — she often reads Shakespeare and does crossword puzzles — is key.
“An interest in new experiences and activity in nature has kept me alive,” Coffin said. “And being surrounded by my family and the young ones has kept me moving. Younger kids make you feel young, and old people make you feel old.”
Coffin was born and raised on a farm in Iowa before she and her husband moved to Kansas in 1977. Though a chipped hip has kept her from being as mobile as she used to be, she said she enjoys working in the garden at least a couple of times a week.
“You can take the girl out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl,” Coffin said. “I love being in the flowers and garden. And I have a real irritation with weeds.”
Coffin said she is looking forward to seeing friends and family at her birthday party in October, but she doesn’t expect hitting 100 to change her much.
“I really don’t feel 100, except a cloudiness sometimes in my mind,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll forget the main ingredient when cooking, like oatmeal for the oatmeal cookies. But living a physically active life over the years has been a huge difference maker, I think.”
Her daughter, Katherine Fordyce, 62, said Coffin is the last matriarch on both sides of the family.
“She’s been my teacher for all these years and a great role model for my family,” Fordyce said. “My parents would always encourage us to live an active life. We would go camp in Colorado, stay in the woods for a week and catch fish for dinner. She’s still continuously involved in our everyday lives, and we’re grateful to have her.”
Gene Cramer, who at 85 has just entered the oldest-old age category, also said finding enjoyment in physical activity is essential for vibrancy in old age.
A tennis player for most of his life, Cramer picked up pickleball when tennis became too strenuous. He said he hasn’t met a pickleball player older than he is in Johnson County.
“If you wait till you’re 85 to be active, you’re just not going to do it,” said Cramer, who plays pickleball four or five times a week. “I expect to keep on playing until I die, and I don’t expect to do that anytime soon.”
Pickleball is a racquet sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis.
Cramer said it is a fast-growing sport in the Kansas City area. He often plays at the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park, where the games are organized by the 50 Plus Program.
“Everyone knows everybody here,” Cramer said after winning a pickleball match at Matt Ross last week. “I can’t think of another sport I could play at this stage in my life that’s this good of exercise and community.”
Betty Villaume, 97, of Overland Park may not climb mountains or play pickleball, but she stays active in another way — by volunteering at St. Joseph Medical Center.
When Villaume moved to Kansas from Florida eight years ago, she said she was eager to start serving the community. Her granddaughter, a nurse at St. Joseph, pointed her toward the hospital.
Ever since, Villaume has been volunteering in the accounting and case management departments of the hospital. She takes her work home with her, too.
In her room at The Atriums Senior Living Community of Overland Park, Villaume sits at her sewing machine for about six hours throughout the week, creating a dozen cloth eyeglass cases that she gives to hospital patients every Tuesday. She said she makes about 500 a year.
That’s just on the side, in addition to her other volunteering.
“It keeps me out of mischief,” she said with a laugh. “This is great for me to get out, meet people and do my share of helping.”
Margaret Leeper, an assistant in the hospital’s volunteer office, said Villaume brings a warm smile every Tuesday.
“She gives us her time, energy and also money to pay to get here,” Leeper said. “She also brings her talents, too, by personally making the eyeglass holders. She’s just such a charming person to be around.”
Villaume said she doesn’t have transportation and depends on Jet Express, a transportation of Jewish Family Services, to get to and from the hospital.
“To live a long and full life, you need to have a good outlook and remember other people over your trials or aches or pains,” Villaume said. “Getting older is never an excuse to stop caring.”
Ponto, the prairie restoration activist at Tallgrass Creek, said age can be an asset to the community of Johnson County.
“I have many years of experience in prairie restoration that motivates me to create change in sustainable native landscaping here,” said Ponto, who recently created “Do not mow here” signs for the maintenance crews at Tallgrass Creek to note areas of native prairie being incorrectly cut down.
“I have a simple life philosophy,” Ponto said, pointing to a sign in her apartment that reads, “Bloom where you are planted.”
“I’ve been planted here at Tallgrass,” she said. “I’m not planning on letting age wilt me anytime soon.”
To reach Caroline Bauman call 816-234-4449 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.