By Richard Eisenberg, Next Avenue
For a look into the present, and possible future, of living to 100, meet the Rarey family, featured in the first episode of the excellent new “Century Lives” podcast series from the Stanford Center on Longevity.
Patriarch Dick Rarey, who turned 100 in 2021, is a former landscape architect and WWII vet, now in assisted living near Columbus, Ohio. On the podcast, Dick says he thought he would die around 40 or 45, then perhaps in his 70s. “Those years passed, and here I am,” he notes.
His son Rich, 63, lives in the Washington, D.C. area and worked at NPR for 34 years in broadcast engineering before being given a two-week notice at 56. These days, he’s enjoying remote work as a full-time senior software engineer at Tome, a Detroit-based software services firm.
“I don’t know what retirement means or what retirement is or what it’s supposed to be,” he says on “Century Lives.” Right now, he told me, his work is “extremely fun.” His biggest frustration is that his dad isn’t computer literate.
When grandson Adam, 23, was interviewed for “Century Lives,” he was working as a video producer, had gotten a pilot’s license and was living with his folks. “I did not expect to move back in with my parents,” he says on the podcast. Adam expected to live there for a month or two, get his career moving and relocate to Los Angeles.
The pandemic had other ideas. After Hollywood shut down, Adam stayed put. He has now decided to become a commercial pilot and hopes to move out of his parents’ home soon.
What Does It Mean to Live to 100?
The six-part “Century Lives” series tells the Rareys’ tale, and stories of others, to represent what it now means to live to 100. The podcast bolsters this with keen insights from longevity experts such as Generations United’s executive director Donna Butts, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, and London Business School economics professor and “The 100 Year Life” co-author Andrew Scott.
The goal: to help answer the big questions revolving around living to 100 at a time when life expectancy has increased by 25 years, the U.S. has 97,000 centenarians and one-half of the average 65-year-old couple has a 50% chance of living to 93, but the traditional rules around work, learning and retirement have remained unchanged.
As podcast host Ken Stern, chair of The Longevity Project (affiliated with the Stanford Center on Longevity), asks in Episode 1: “How can we ensure that our lives are not just longer, but healthy and rewarding as well?”
The answer is revealed in episodes released each Wednesday through February 16 (you can hear them on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts).
You can also delve into this subject by reading the new books, “The Super Age” by demographer Bradley Schurman and “The AgeTech Revolution” by gerontechnologist and Next Avenue Influencer in Aging Keren Etkin.
The first four “Century Lives” episodes, already live, are on: what the Stanford Center on Longevity calls “The New Map of Life” (the school’s director Laura Carstensen wrote about that map for Next Avenue), cities and multigenerational living. Coming up: health care and tech, higher education and work.
The Societal Constructions of Age
Carstensen notes in Episode 1 that cultural markers of age — like retiring at 65 — are “arbitrary.” She says on the podcast: “There’s nothing magical about sixty-five. People sixty-five are, by and large, no different than people at sixty-four or even sixty-three. These ages that we’ve constructed were societal constructions; we can change them all.”
And, as the experts on “Century Lives” explain, we’d better.
Policymakers, urban planners, employers and higher education leaders, the series notes, all need to rethink things to better suit the growing numbers of people living to 100.
Rich Rarey shared with me his hopes for those types of changes this way: “If an older person’s basic needs for housing and medical could be taken care of, then they could reenter the workforce in some capacity and bring a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge, and it wouldn’t cost that much.”
And, he added: “I keep thinking, and this may sound strange, of the ‘Star Trek’ kind of realm of the future where your basic needs seem to have been met and then you spend the rest of your lifetime to lift yourself up and be the best you.”
But, as the “Century Lives” experts explained, it will take some doing to adapt the health care and economic opportunities in cities to better suit residents of all neighborhoods and income levels.
I was saddened to learn from the podcast that in Washington, D.C, people in Georgetown tend to live to around 95 but residents of Anacostia — which is beset by higher incidences of poverty and crime — have a depressingly brief lifespan of 67.
Steven Woolf, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and expert in the social determinants of health, tells “Century Lives” that he’s “concerned and worried” about how long it will take before a child’s first 1,000 days in Anacostia are as fortunate as they are for one in Georgetown.
Carstensen tells Stern on the podcast that, like Rich Rarey, she doesn’t know what retirement means these days either.
Questions We’ll Ask Ourselves
“And I think that’s kind of wonderful that we don’t know what it means,” she says. “Because it means we’re going to have to be a little bit creative about what we do after this period of full-time, pretty intense work ends and we have some flexibility to do thing differently.”
She thinks people will increasingly ask themselves, as they reach their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s: “How do I contribute? How do I make the world a better place? How do I give back?” adding that “I think that’s going to lead to something fabulous.”
Season 2 of “Century Lives” — expected to drop in April 2022 — and subsequent seasons will take deep dives into longevity subjects such as long-term care and the lives of the oldest old.
So, how well are society, higher education leaders, policymakers and employers doing in addressing longer lives right now? “I think we have a long way to go,” Stern told me. “All levels of government need to pull together to solve problems of equitable lifelong living opportunities; I’m not sure that all levels of government know how to pull together.”
But, he noted, “I’m excited about changes in norms around lifelong learning. And I think it’s been really exciting what’s happening in health care technology.”
Overall, he said, “I’m a glass half-full kind of guy. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to give people a chance at healthy, hundred-year lives. I think our podcast’s tagline ‘The hundred-year life is here; we’re not ready’ is very true. But talking to the smart people who are working on it gives me real hope.”