“I was going to say, I’m too old for this,” John Seymour, 76, jokes after finishing his weekly flamenco class at the American Dance Institute.
In his younger days, Seymour took boxing and karate classes. Now, at 76 years old, he’s active as ever. He dances flamenco, ballroom, jazz and hula, he takes Zumba and kickboxing classes, and he attends a weekly French-conversation group.
Seymour is a picture of constant motion. He gestures enthusiastically while talking, even leaping out of his chair once to perform flamenco flourishes and karate moves — the two are surprisingly similar, he says.
“I just like to move,” Seymour says, attributing his good physical health to a lifetime of activity.
Stereotypes and depictions of seniors in popular media often portray the senior years as an idle era of mental and physical decline, but Seymour is one of many seniors around the Seattle area who are challenging these stereotypes by finding creative ways to stay active and thriving into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s.
We asked a dozen local seniors to tell us how they’ve stayed healthy and happy into their mature years.
The common denominators? Physical activity, community, a sense of purpose and an unquenchable curiosity. Here are their stories.
“You’ve got to keep moving”
Seymour says being as energetic and active as he is at 76 seems to be somewhat unusual.
Even though studies have shown that physical activity has a significant positive impact on physical and mental health in seniors across socioeconomic groups, only 35-44% of adults 75 years or older, and 28-34% of adults ages 65-74, are physically active, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“I’m in a lot of classes where I’m the oldest person, and I don’t know why,” said Seymour. “I’ve had three personal trainers tell me that when their fathers retired, they sat down in an easy chair in front of the TV and froze in place. I don’t want that to happen to me. You’ve got to keep moving; if you stop moving, you freeze up.”
Seymour has more physical limitations now than he once did. He rattles off a list of minor impairments — including what he calls a few “hold-my-beer-watch-this” injuries sustained in his more-daring youth. But he laments stereotypes about seniors being physically incapable and in mental decline.
For Seymour, it’s about knowing and adapting to your limits. Ballroom, flamenco and hula are things you can do your whole life, he says.
Seymour says it’s never too late to learn something new, and he encourages other seniors to explore new activities.
“Maybe they’ve got a stereotype in their own minds that ‘I’m too old for this, I should be in a rocking chair taking it easy, I don’t want to break anything, old people don’t do this.’ Maybe that stereotype is blocking them,” he said. “I started flamenco at 73. It’ll take me 10 years to get any good, and then I’ll be 83, but then I just say, ‘Well, how old will I be if I don’t do it?’”
His wife, Carole Seymour, wanted to dance hula as a child growing up in Hawaii, but her mother wouldn’t let her. Now in her 70s, with motherhood and a decadeslong nursing career behind her, Carole dances hula weekly with a group of senior women who call themselves the Hula Grannies. (Eventually, John joined them too.)
“I’m happy that I finally followed through with my desire. I probably should have done it sooner,” Carole said. “I’m glad I didn’t let it pass by.”
Most of the Hula Grannies are in their 70s and 80s and some, like Judy Kusakabe, 77, are old enough to have experienced the incarceration camps that Japanese Americans were forced into during World War II.
Born in Camp Harmony, an incarceration camp in Puyallup, Kusakabe says dancing hula with a community of women is her way of healing from that experience.
“We’re running out of people who can tell the story. This is one of [the ways I find joy], and my grandkids,” said Kusakabe. “You have to find the joy. Especially at our age.”
For Nancy Kubo, staying physically active is important for her mental and physical health. It’s why she began tap dancing.
“You have to think on your feet — literally,” said Kubo. “It’s a weight-bearing exercise, so it’s good for preventing osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s, and it’s just plain fun!”
Kubo says tap has helped ease her chronic neck pain.
“It jiggles it out,” she said. “I don’t have a tight neck the next day. It loosens it up.”
“Coming here gives them healing”
Three times a week, as part of El Centro de la Raza’s Senior Nutrition and Wellness Program in North Beacon Hill, a class of seniors works through specially designed exercises to a soundtrack of anything from “Cotton Eye Joe” to merengue music.
“I don’t feel old. I feel like I’m 15 years old every day,” says poet Rafael Santana Renteria, 85, with a laugh.
On a recent Wednesday, the class comes to life when the merengue kicks in. They swing their hips and shuffle their feet, some of them shirking the instructor’s cues and adding in a few extra spins.
Renteria dances along in his wheelchair, swinging his arms energetically.
After class ends, as several participants linger to talk, Madrea Dela Cruz, 75, turns the merengue back on to keep the dance party going, and Renteria dazzles the lingerers with romantic poems about youth and love while he waits for his ride.
Dela Cruz understands that this social aspect is important for senior health.
“Socializing is very important to us,” said Dela Cruz. “We seniors who are keeping on, we have to be with people. If you’re just sitting there watching TV, your mind will go. If you stay with people, you can share your ideas.”
At Rainier Beach Urban Farm, the idea is similar.
About 30 elders, originally from places like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, meet every Friday to help maintain the farm and wetlands and to share a meal together.
Berhane Ghidey, 73, and Tadesse Gebrehiwot, 80, often cook the group’s meals in the farm’s kitchen, sometimes serving dishes from their respective home countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia — countries that, until 2018, had been at war for 20 years.
“People from Ethiopia and Eritrea, they were fighting each other,” said Michael Neguse, 63, who founded the program. “People tend to bring that animosity here [to the U.S.], but here, no. We have people speaking Oromo, speaking Amharic and Tigrinya, and we work together. Some people became great friends when they came here.”
Many of the elders at the farm are immigrants or refugees from countries at war. Cooking and sharing meals helps heal rifts sown by conflicts between nations.
“We work together, we play together, we eat together, we sing together,” said Gebrehiwot. “We invite our younger people to come here to see what we do. We want to lead by example.”
Neguse says being on the farm and building community keeps the elders healthy, helping them through trauma and feelings of isolation.
“Being an Eritrean immigrant and coming to a new country is overwhelming. They get depressed easily and they are isolated,” said Neguse. “Back home, we are used to family, friends, the whole village. But here, there’s nothing for some of them.They just come here and they go to work and stay at home, and they become victims of other kinds of diseases. Coming here gives them healing.”
“It makes me feel more like I’m part of the normal human race”
But not every ailment can be healed, and for some seniors, staying active means adapting to physical limitations.
A lifelong cyclist, Curt Burnett, 70, discovered a tumor in his leg in 2001. After surgery and radiation, he was left with nerve damage in his leg that made it impossible for him to ride a bicycle.
To continue his passion, Burnett turned to trikes — three-wheeled recumbent vehicles that can be accessible alternatives to bicycles.
In 2018, after retiring from a career in manufacturing, he opened Seattle Trike in the Interbay/Magnolia area to help trike lovers and others looking for adaptive options to cycling.
Burnett says many of his customers are bicyclists hoping to continue cycling through injuries or age. Some are veterans who’ve lost limbs, or seniors with vision loss searching for a safer way to ride. For some, triking makes them feel “normal” again, and Burnett understands their feelings.
“I kind of have a funny walk,” Burnett said. “So I feel like people notice this poor old man that’s hobbling along, but when I’m riding a trike, especially kids, they see the trike and they smile and yell. It looks like fun. It makes me feel more like I’m part of the normal human race.”
Burnett hosts monthly group rides where trike enthusiasts of different abilities can come together, ride and socialize.
Triking has shown Burnett a different way to appreciate an old hobby.
“When you’re riding as fast as you can go on a bike, you have to have your attention a few feet in front of you all the time,” said Burnett. “I just look back and think about all the scenery I missed — the birds and just everything.”
“Be interested in everything around you”
According to Toni Underwood, 99, the recipe to a long, healthy life is simple, if not always easy: be happy and be curious.
Underwood is legally blind, and she moved into a retirement center four years ago. But that hasn’t stopped her from traveling widely — to her ancestral homeland in Italy, and to places like Greece, South Africa and Ireland. A World War II veteran, Underwood was recently in Normandy visiting the grave of her brother, who was killed in the war.
She’s always had a sense of curiosity about the world. Before serving in the military, Underwood wanted to be a flight attendant.
“When I was growing up, I don’t think people traveled as much,” said Underwood. “If I went 200 miles from where I was living, that was a big trip. But I’ve always enjoyed reading about different countries and different people. I’ve always had the [urge] to travel.”
Underwood will turn 100 in July, and doesn’t plan to stop traveling. Besides good genes, she believes joy has kept her healthy and thriving.
“Enjoy your life,” she said. “Be interested in everything around you, interested in people, interested in events, just be interested. And be happy. The only person that can make me happy is me. I think it’s so important to know that and be happy.”