It's 11 on Thursday morning at the Burnside community center in Adelaide, Australia and about 45 people are getting ready for their weekly exercises. Next door, seven women are chatting while embroidering, knitting or weaving. Nearby, a small group is playing pool, as, at a neighboring table, two couples are concentrating on Mahjong.
Meanwhile, in the center's small café-restaurant, the staff is setting up to serve its clientele a lunch of quiche, roast beef, salad and Pavlova -- a favorite Australian dessert.
Pretty normal stuff, right? Not exactly because almost all the activities involve people in the chronological winter of their lives, in their 70s, 80s, even well into their 90s, and the activities provide clues as to why Australia has possibly the most vibrant senior population on the planet. National, state, and local governments combined with private groups are providing a range of services, facilities and opportunities to make this island continent a model for successful aging -- the standard for the white-hair revolution.
According to government figures, Australian men have the world's second longest life expectancy, (79, after Japan) and women the third longest (84, after Japan and Hong Kong). By 2051, those 65 years and older are expected to make up between 27 and 30 percent of the population, with people 85 years or older experiencing the highest growth rate, comprising between 6 and 9 percent of the country's total.
But it isn't just that Australians are living longer. It's that they are living actively. Joan is one of about 80 people -- almost all of them seniors -- who play duplicate bridge every Tuesday at the center. At 91, her eyes are beginning to fail her and she has to bring an additional lamp, but you don't want to be playing against her; she can outperform almost all her competitors. Alice is a star in line-dancing class with an agility and grace that defy her 89 years. Ron is about to celebrate his 90th year and has recently given up yoga. Not because he couldn't do it anymore, but because he didn't have enough time what with his two-hour morning walk with his daughter, fitness class, mentoring duties and membership in several organizations.
The seniors' vitality extends all along the spectrum of life. The Australian Council on Aging recently called for safe sex workshops to educate seniors who are enjoying an upsurge in sexual activity. According to "The Age" newspaper, research in Western Australia shows that sexual activity among the 82-87 age group is ''reasonably common."
So what is it that Australia is doing so right? Aging experts say there is no one thing that contributes to senior health, that what is working Down Under is a multi-layered approach made up of factors ranging from access to health facilities, targeted exercises, intellectual stimulation, community support and social connection.
Mary Luszcz, professor at the School of Psychology and Centre for Aging Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide and co-author of a study on aging in South Australia, emphasizes the importance of "an engaged lifestyle," in growing old successfully. She told Provoices that such a lifestyle "doesn't have to be physically active, necessarily, but with some purpose one can call their own, including interactions with 'close others' such as a spouse, kids, friends, relatives, neighbors."
True to that concept, almost every senior hobby or event here has a social component, from coffee after yoga and fitness to monthly dinners for line dancing. Then there are shopping trips (transport is provided), afternoon tea and lunch outings, cooking classes for men, walking groups, movies, even something called the shed where senior men can be involved in community projects, making or repairing items while socializing.
Physical activity, although not crucial according to experts, is strongly encouraged with exercises that are pointedly age appropriate. No jogging, hours on the treadmill or fancy equipment. Instead trainers specializing in elder workouts lead seniors in simple resistance or flexibility exercises designed to strengthen joints, increase balance and coordination and maintain bone and muscle health. Rachel Davidson, a trained fitness instructor who volunteers her time said her exercise program, called Easy Moves for Active Aging assists "older Australian to put more life into their years!"
The cost for the hour-long exercise session? $2.75. In fact, all the programs are designed to be affordable. Yoga costs $3.50 for 90 minutes; bridge is $5.50 for three hours of play; and lunch, a popular option for seniors, may be the best bargain or all -- $8.25 for the four-course meal. Notary services, provided by Justice of the Peace volunteers, cost nothing at all.
Affordability doesn't end there. Older people who live independently pay a nominal fee (it can be as little as $7) for minor home maintenance, like changing light bulbs and smoke alarms batteries, replacing faucet washers, fitting locks, cleaning gutters and installing walking rails. Their district pays the rest. Handyman services are only one part of efforts to help elders remain in their own homes; others include domestic assistance and personal care, and respite opportunities for carers.
There are multiple educational possibilities from the libraries and their computer classes to a school designed for seniors-called the University for a Third Age, which offers courses ranging from wine appreciation, opera and ShakespeareShakespeare to conversation groups on current affairs and philosophy.
But experts say the resilience of Australian seniors may be due as much to the Aussie character as to anything else. Luszcz said that "a decidedly 'Australian' factor is the 'she'll be right mate,' 'no worries' mentality that sees folks of all ages getting on with things in the face of adversity, the unexpected or other challenges." She said that her study has established that senior Australians seem to understand that accepting "one's life as a whole" is a key factor in psychological well-being.