Not long ago, I considered someone 70 years of age to be old. Now that I have passed that mark, I’ve pushed that to 90.
Recently, I photographed a group playing the card game euchre. Every member was older than 82. One was 90. Fifty-plus years ago, when I began my career, this would have been news.
Not so long ago in America, the average life span was 60 years. When I was born in 1951, it was around 68. By 2022, it had climbed to 79.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported 1.9 million people 90 or older living in the U.S. in 2010—nearly triple the number in 1980. This age group is projected to more than quadruple by 2050, comprising 10% of the population then.
People are living longer and, in many cases, better. In the small Iowa town where I now live, I know a half-dozen people who have lived nine decades and are going strong.
I used to give basic photography students an assignment, “Over 80.” Some would roll their eyes and grumble they didn’t know anyone that old.
You would have thought I had asked them to photograph a flying saucer or interview a Martian.
I reminded them they were in a journalism program, and that they should do a little research. Visit McDonald’s in the morning, or a fishing village, a farm or a nursing home. I upped the challenge to 90 and older for advanced students.
To pass the assignment, students had to interview, photograph and write a brief biography about their subject.
Surprisingly—or sadly—many had never met a person older than 80, let alone 90.
When I find myself sliding into thoughts of aging because my knees hurt, I’m tired or I feel “less than good,” I encounter a frisky 90-year-old showing no signs of hunting for a rocking chair.
I immediately stand up a little straighter.
People older than me who act younger than me give me hope.
I love talking to and photographing those who have walked this earth longer than I have.
Recently, I spoke with and photographed a woman who was 1011/2.
I told her I wanted to attend her 102nd birthday next March.
I loved her wit, her memories and her positive outlook. Last year, she rode a long zip line.
I asked her if she planned to get married again. She grinned and said, “I hadn’t planned on it, but now that you put the idea in my head, I might reconsider.”
Find someone 90 or older and ask if you can make a portrait of them. Practice listening. This will give your subject something worthwhile: your time and respect. Follow up by giving them or their family the photo as a gift. I assure you, they will treasure it.
With their permission, record their wisdom. Ask what they might do differently, as well as signature moments, greatest joys and regrets, and the piece of advice they would like to share.
Email your best image (just one, please) with caption information, including an explanation of how it affects you, to GPH@pur.coop. We may share submissions on our website and social media channels.