Seniors are living longer, are more educated and have witnessed more global changes than their predecessors. Today’s elders are therefore becoming the backbone of our society as well as role models for younger generations.

In an era when, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study, the proportion of elderly people in the North American population is projected to reach over 20% by the year 2030, seniors are increasingly becoming the dominant demographic group of our society. The 2001 study entitled An Aging World, notes that advances in medical science have improved the average lifespan by almost three decades within the last century. Seniors are living longer, are more educated and have witnessed more global changes than their predecessors. Today's elders are therefore becoming the backbone of our society as well as role models for younger generations. Many men and women are making their most significant contributions to society, later in life.

More than ever before, seniors are challenging the definition of “retirement”. Is it tied to leaving a job or career or pausing a career to live healthier, more active lives? In his book, The Virtues of Aging, former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter writes: “Each of us is old when we think we are, when we accept an attitude of dormancy, dependence on others, a substantial limitation on our physical and mental activity.”

Hasni Essa, a senior in California views retirement as a time to pursue dreams, travel, volunteer, try new things, and enjoy the company of family and friends. “The reality, however, is not always as rosy as the dream,” he admits. People, throughout their lives, operate on the "what's next" phenomenon, and when they reach the retirement age, they are overwhelmed by apprehension for the future. “It's all about making the second half of your life as dynamic and fulfilling as the first,” he adds. One way to do that, he suggests, “is by stepping outside one's comfort zone and trying something new.” Hasni was a pioneer member of the first Ismaili Council of Los Angeles and organised the Aga Khan Orchestra of Los Angeles. He and his wife currently run a little store in Santa Monica, where they have set up a reference library complete with Internet access to keep informed and abreast of global events.

For 68-year-old Rashid Lalani, retirement came at a place he least expected, when he and his wife moved from Karachi to Texas to help take care of their grandchildren. A retired engineer, astrologer, and Reiki healer, Lalani learned to trade stocks online to keep himself active. “I have an insatiable curiosity and resist the idea of being mentally stagnant. I try to continually expand my mental horizon,” he relates. Lalani displays a positive outlook on life that projects into his interactions with others. “Aging makes one more balanced and helps cultivate an ability to accept life as it comes,” he states “I perceive the process of aging to be natural and inevitable, as an opportunity to introspect on my past experiences, learn from them, and improve the present.”

In the life of 61-year-old Fatima Dhanani of Calgary, many challenges occurred right around middle age. “In the middle of difficulty, there is opportunity,” she reflects. “I think back to almost 17 years ago when my husband passed away. Suddenly I was alone and shattered.” She decided to pick up the pieces of her life and take over her husband's property management business. Despite being a single mother of two, she managed its expansion into real estate and land development as well as office, retail, and industrial construction projects. Her business interests, family values, and voluntary services have given her a balanced perspective on aging. But above all, Dhanani credits her faith for the strength, courage and positive attitude she needed to move forward. “We age quickly when we think only about the negative side of life,” she muses. “But if we stay focused on keeping busy and having positive attitudes, we start to think and behave in a different way; our whole outlook on life changes.”

Fatima's sentiments of keeping busy and embracing positive attitudes are echoed by Sherwin Nuland, a professor at Yale University's Medical School, who outlines three simple steps for healthy aging: working on physical fitness, holding onto close relationships, and using your creativity. In his book, The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being, Nuland, 76, speaks to those advancing in years to help them achieve their goals for life at 70 and beyond. Despite the commonly held belief that exercise is a key factor towards aging gracefully, Nuland says organised physical health should not be the only focus for aging adults. Choosing activities like art classes or playing with grandchildren is just as beneficial as physical activity like walking or bicycling, because they provide a sense of connectedness.

Mirza with Governor Rick Perry showcasing his work at the Texas State Capitol in 2004. Photo: Abdul Mohamed Mirza with Governor Rick Perry showcasing his work at the Texas State Capitol in 2004. Abdul Mohamed

Mirza Mohamed of Texas is a living example of Nuland's three steps for healthy aging. In his everyday life, he toils over his art and tries to capture the mystical facet of human existence through his paintings. At 63, he continues to produce his “poetry on canvas” and shows no signs of slowing down. In February of 2004 he was invited to the Texas State Capitol by Governor Rick Perry to showcase some of his work and in March 2006, he held an exhibition at the Consulate of Pakistan in Houston. “Being involved in a creative endeavour opens up a lively, happy, and spiritual world to me and provides me with immense pleasure,” he states. He stays fit by following a regular workout regimen and a healthy diet. His close-knit family further enriches his life.

Increasingly, seniors across North America are realising that although aging is a natural phenomenon of human life, continued mental stimulation and a healthier lifestyle can lead to longer and happier lives. From helping family to managing large businesses to producing creative works of art, senior citizens continue to shape the world we live in and impact our future by their examples. “You are only as old as you feel,” is an aphorism that still has currency today.