The first wave of baby boomers is having
Nope. No matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine my 60-year-old grandmother strapping herself to a pair of in‑line skates and taking to the trails. Nor can I remember her snowboarding on Sundays or training for a triathlon in between cups of tea. But that is because my grandmother celebrated her 60th birthday more than 30 years ago, at a time when ladies shuffled quietly into retirement with a blue rinse in their hair and a pair of comfy slippers on their feet.
What a difference a generation makes.
The first crop of baby boomers turns 60 this month. In fact, 3.4 million boomers in the United States will skip into their seventh decade this year, and they’re doing it with more beauty, vibrancy, and daring than anyone could have predicted. Few are showing signs of slowing down, and perhaps nowhere are they strutting their stuff more exuberantly than in the East Bay.
Just look around. Our birthday boomers are breaking all the rules. They’re cycling up Mount Diablo one minute and starting new careers the next—while laughing at the concept of retirement. They’re in gyms; they’re in college. They’re even in love.
As our boomers bounce with ambition into their third trimester of life, the East Bay is preparing for changes. There are about 275,000 boomers, born between 1946 and ’64, in Contra Costa County alone, a whopping 27 percent of our population; Alameda County’s boomer population hovers closer to 21 percent. A grassroots organization, Contra Costa for Every Generation, is already working to prepare the county for the impending surge of sixtysomethings.
So it’s high time for Diablo to take a closer look at all the boomers getting within spitting distance of the big 6-0, and at their age-defying leaps in health, fitness, and fun. Their reinvention of retirement will shape our communities for years to come.
60’s the new 40
The first batch of boomers was born when the dangers of smoking were but a whisper, and FDA-approved vaccines for measles, tetanus, and polio were still several years away. Despite all this, and in spite of having lived through the worst scourge of fast food in the 1950s and a surge of recreational drug use in the 1960s, today’s oldest boomers are the healthiest 60-year-olds yet.
It’s their attitude toward fitness and well-being that really sets this generation apart from previous ones. “These are people who are proactive about their health,” says Len Saputo, M.D., medical director of Lafayette’s Health Medicine Institute. “They are walking and jogging, and are interested in diet, stress reduction, and getting enough sleep. They don’t want to wind up in convalescent hospitals like their parents. They’re out there on the front lines doing whatever they can.”
The upperclassmen of the boomer generation are flocking into our health clubs, and the clubs are responding. “We are having to change and re-evaluate our programming and class structures for that population,” says Charli Martucci, group exercise director at Pleasanton’s ClubSport. “We’ve got aqua classes that are specifically designed for people with arthritis, and we’re offering more stretch and strengthening classes geared toward aging.”
In fact, several ClubSports are offering an array of wellness programs geared to boomers, including workshops about osteoporosis, nutrition, and proper body alignment.
But for many East Bay boomers, the gym is simply a stepping-stone to greater adventures. They need to stay in shape so that they can head out to sail, snowboard, run marathons, and throw themselves out of planes for fun.
Lafayette boomer Scott Anderson began running at the tender age of 50. By 57, he was running 40 miles a week to train for his first marathon, which he ran in 2003. “Just crossing the finish line was one of the best achievements of my life,” he says.
Anderson, who turns 60 in August, now runs every other day, and hopes to begin training for another marathon soon. “I feel I can do better,” he says.
Then there’s John Dobleman, a 57-year-old teacher at Antioch’s Deer Valley High School, who spends most weekends skydiving with Byron’s Bay Area Skydiving. He averages about eight 14,000-foot jumps each day he’s out there, and he plans to be jumping out of planes well into his eighties.
It’s the snowboarding he took up two years ago that has thrown him a few punches. “An older body doesn’t respond quite as well, and I have cracked an arm and a vertebra,” he says. “But am I going to give it up? No. The experience is worth the occasional pain.”
What drives a boomer of his age to be so stubbornly active? “Maybe it’s having grown up with the threat of nuclear war,” says Dobleman. “Maybe, subconsciously, we have decided to try to live life to the fullest and experience as many things as we can.”
That means travel. Boomers are finding their way to the farthest reaches of the globe—in style. Berkeley’s OCSC Sailing Club offers yachting excursions around Tahiti, Australia, Croatia, Greece, and Antarctica. Half of its membership is 45 to 65 years old, but these boomers aren’t just kicking back with a cocktail and watching the sun set (although there might be a bit of that). They ride camels, kayak, and camp in the snow. They fly in hot-air balloons and travel to archeological sites on horseback. They have even traveled to Kenya, where they lived with Masai warriors in a village before sailing to Somalia. “At some point,” says president and founder Anthony Sandberg, “people must get dissatisfied with remodeling their kitchen, building a deck, and playing golf.”
Sandberg, 56, is quick to point out that nudging 60 isn’t what it once was. “Fifty years ago, our mothers wouldn’t go anywhere without a hat and gloves on, and our fathers always wore suits,” he says. “But today, I don’t think I have one friend who doesn’t have a mountain bike. The image of yourself is very powerful. What you think you can do, you can do.”
In a 2005 survey of baby boomers done by Del Webb, a company that builds retirement communities, travel was the top aspiration of those heading into retirement. And it’s a safe bet that many will go where few retirees have gone before. “We are risk takers,” says Robin Riff, president of Walnut Creek health care marketing consulting firm Boomer Business & Beyond. “We’ve been running marathons our whole life and traveling the world, so a lot of the travel industries are changing their focus to bike tours and adventure vacations.”
Alan Reader, co-owner of Orinda Travel, sees the shift toward adventure travel—and toward luxury. “We’re seeing more upscale adventures, escorted tours, and luxury cruising,” he says.
When Reader says luxury, he means it. A lot of East Bay boomers choose to travel in style and at significant cost. A popular vacation in this age group might be seven days on a small, deluxe ship with fewer than 300 aboard, sailing out of Hong Kong and visiting China and Vietnam. The price tag? A mere $20,000.
New Ideas About Health
In contrast to their parents, there are few boomers who accept surgery without question or down any prescription set before them. The days when doctors’ orders were gospel are long gone.
The Health Medicine Institute’s Saputo attributes this independent thinking to the rebellious and formative years of the 1960s. “These were the hippies, the free-spirited people who didn’t want to be told anything, and they are still a little defiant about being told what to do,” he says.
Alternative medicine is certainly big business in the East Bay, and its practitioners report concentrating on clients in the boomer age range. Danville and San Ramon each have close to 30 practicing chiropractors. In Lafayette alone there are at least 14 acupuncturists; another 20 work just a few minutes away in Walnut Creek.
Joyce Kwok, an acupuncturist and physical therapist working at Lafayette’s Healthflow Learning Center, says that people ages 40 to 60 make up the majority of her clients. “They’re very open-minded and more aware,” Kwok says. “They have a lot more information and are not satisfied with the current system in place—drugs and surgery particularly.”
While most of their parents wouldn’t have known yoga from Yogi Berra, boomers have been among those helping new fitness trends go mainstream. Dublin’s Pilates Body by Valentin is one new East Bay studio that was established with a boomer clientele firmly in mind. Today, the majority of its Pilates students are in that age group, and most of them take classes twice a week. “They take it very seriously and are willing to go through the visualization process that connects the mind and the body,” says Valentin. “Pilates enhances their functionality of living. These people want to continue to go on long hikes and travel. They want to be able to carry that heavy bag through the airport.”
But it’s not just the strength and flexibility taught in these classes that boomers crave. Sue Meadows, mind/body program coordinator at Pleasanton’s ClubSport, believes boomers are drawn to both yoga and Pilates because, besides delivering a great workout, it helps them tap into something a little more spiritual. “It changes their lives,” she says. “I know that sounds real cosmic and groovy, but it is really powerful for baby boomers now that we’re going through these mid-life transitions and looking for a spiritual connection.”
When 54-year-old Meadows looks out across her Pilates class and sees a room full of boomers expertly holding the knee-trembling plank pose, she swells with pride. “When I was 20, I had a very different vision of what life would be like when I was closing in on 55,” she says. “I pictured myself plopped in front of the TV every night, with no interests. I never dreamed that I would be a triathlete, self-employed, and teaching Pilates. I just had no sense of how healthy, vibrant, and powerful we could be.”
In this tale of age-defiance, if the leading lady is feisty health-consciousness, her swashbuckling hero is Western medicine. Age-related diseases are no longer ravaging our retirees with the same intensity they once did, and the average life expectancy has risen from 68.2 years in 1950 to an all-time high of 77.3 years in 2002. “People 60 years ago had more cardiovascular-related deaths, and they died mostly in their fifties, sixties, and seventies,” says Thomas Connolly, M.D., an internist at Kaiser Permanente’s Park Shadelands Medical Center in Walnut Creek. “When people stopped smoking and we started controlling blood pressure and paying more attention to cholesterol levels, the cardiovascular [disease] mortality rates plummeted.”
Did they ever. Between 1950 and 2002, heart disease–related deaths between the ages of 55 and 64 dropped roughly 70 percent in the United States. And the good news doesn’t end there. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, our 60-year-old boomers are less likely than their 1950 counterparts to die of strokes, pneumonia, liver disease, and cancer.
The comparison between the two generations is stark. A 60-year-old in 1946 would probably have laughed at the concept of exercise for fun, could look forward to the fog of untreated cataracts in his twilight years, and was lucky if he had any of his own teeth left.
Sexy, single, and … 60?
Boomers are acting younger, feeling younger, and—not surprisingly—looking younger. Especially around here. The East Bay’s eruption of spas, fashion boutiques, beauty salons, and health clubs is keeping our boomers buffed and beautiful. And those who find themselves single are busy dating.
Julie Paiva, founder and CEO of Bay Area dating agency Table for Six Total Adventures, says that 75 percent of her 3,000 East Bay members are between 40 and 60, and are exceptional in many ways. “Generally, our members in the East Bay are more fit,” says Paiva, whose agency also has offices in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Mountain View.
According to Paiva, the female members in their fifties are incredibly successful, well-read, well-traveled, open-minded, independent, and sexy. “They’re gorgeous. And they look a lot younger, I’ll tell you that much. There are women who are in their mid-fifties and you would swear they were in their early forties,” she says. “They just take really good care of themselves. Some are very adventurous and are interested in dating younger men in their thirties and forties.”
Although plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures might be the salvation of some of the ageless beauties waltzing through our streets, there are a good number of women who can put it down to good old-fashioned hard work. Walnut Creek’s Sandra Clopton is one of them.
A member of Table for Six for three years, Clopton is 57 years old but is frequently mistaken for a much younger woman. “Most of the guys I’ve dated since my divorce 15 years ago have been five or 10 years younger than me, and they’re surprised when they find out my age,” she says.
Again, her youthfulness comes back to a healthy lifestyle. Clopton does Pilates and yoga, hikes, bikes, and maintains a healthy diet. “There’s a reason why I look as good as I do. It’s not by accident,” she says. “It’s been a lifelong interest in health.”
How does she feel about pushing 60? “I don’t think 60, I don’t act 60, and I don’t look 60,” she says. “I’m looking forward to thirty more years of healthy living. I still have a lot to look forward to.”
Reinventing retirement might be what the boomers do best. Ever since they were babies, they have been reshaping life and doing everything their parents didn’t. Maddy Kent Dychtwald, senior vice president of San Francisco’s Age Wave and author of Cycles: How We Will Live, Work, and Buy, calls the boomers a generation of pioneers. “They have transformed our society every step along the lifespan that they have traveled,” she says. “They have defined themselves by rebelling against their parents, and when you have 76 million rebelling at one time, it creates a sense of revolution.”
Now that these rebels are reaching retirement, how will they behave? “I haven’t encountered a single person who said they just want to go to the beach and play golf or sit at home and watch TV,” says career and life transition specialist Alexandria Hilton, founder and president of Orinda-based Bellissima Consulting. “When they retire, they’re looking for other projects to sink their teeth into.”
Del Webb’s survey of boomers found that 52 percent of people aged 50 to 59 think they will begin a new line of work after they retire, and that 30 percent of those age 40 to 49 will consider going back to school.
Dychtwald, who lives in Orinda, says that the boomer yen to return to school will be especially notable in the East Bay. “Many people here are graduates of Cal and Stanford,” she says. “They have been busy with life and raising children. Now that they are coming out of that phase of life, you’re going to see lots of people deciding to go to Diablo Valley College, St. Mary’s, or Cal so that they can empower themselves for the future. I think the energy and the power that we’re going to see in the East Bay as a result of this is going to be phenomenal.”
Indeed, one of our area’s distinguishing factors is the education level of its residents. The 2000 census found that in the Tri-Valley, 44 percent of residents have bachelor’s degrees or higher. In Contra Costa, that figure is 36.5 percent. “That’s well above the state and national average,” says Cheryll LeMay, chairwoman of the steering committee of Contra Costa for Every Generation. “There’s a lot of brain power here. That means there will be a lot of professional people who will be looking to continue to make contributions well beyond their retirement.”
Last spring, more than 17 percent of the enrolled students at Diablo Valley College were over 40.
Although the wish to go back to school and work past 60 might be financially fueled for some boomers, many will work for the sheer joy of it. And whether they are swinging a career U-turn and becoming teachers, going back to school to become registered nurses, or just volunteering, the retirement revolution has a common theme: giving back to the community. “Boomers volunteer twice as much as any other generation,” says Dychtwald. “So the voluntary manpower that’s going to be available for our schools, for our politics, and for our communities in the future is just amazing.”
Here to Stay
Not surprisingly, our boomers do not intend to pack up their belongings and trundle off to retirement communities. In fact, many of our boomers aren’t planning on going anywhere, says Mary Furlong, president of Lafayette-based business strategy company Mary Furlong & Associates. “In cities like Orinda, Lafayette, and Alamo, most boomers will age in place,” she says. “Why would you leave one of the nicer communities in the Bay Area? It wouldn’t make sense.”
Judi Keenholtz, CEO of Empire Realty, does not foresee a lot of them budging either. “Many of the boomers are not downsizing simply because of the tax base that they’re in. It’s very favorable for them to stay where they are,” says Keenholtz, who is 61 herself and started her real estate company just three years ago. “Many are staying in their family homes, doing some remodeling, and making their houses more adult orientated,” with such additions as exercise rooms and home offices.
Since retirees often want to be in the midst of culture and activity, many of our cities—with their restaurants, theaters, and walking trails—will likely become boomer hotspots. “I think you’re going to see a migration into new communities such as Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, where there are a lot of amenities and lots to do at night,” says Furlong.
Of course, some East Bay boomers will cash out on their equity-rich houses and move to the likes of Oregon or Arizona, where property is much cheaper. But if the majority end up staying, and we have an influx of retirees from elsewhere, then our social and economic landscape will change considerably. For one thing, our towns will reflect a much more multigenerational community, with new cultural amenities and businesses.
It is expected that, with our 275,000 boomers, Contra Costa’s population over the age of 65 will more than double over the next 35 years. LeMay, of Contra Costa for Every Generation, explains that the group’s main goal is to ensure that our communities are good places to age. “It would be a shame if everybody who could afford to live in Contra Costa sold their property and moved to Henderson, Nevada,” she says. “What a loss that would be for us.”
The group’s other goals include establishing a support system so people can stay as long as they want in their current homes, even if they live alone; affordable senior housing; rehabilitating existing homes; and developing a seniorcentric transportation system.
Since no generation has ever done what the boomers are doing, it’s hard to predict the many ways in which they will shape our community. “We know things are going to change,” says LeMay. “But, frankly, I’m not sure any of us knows how this will play out. We just know that it’s going to be a very profound change.”
What we know for sure is that our boomers are refusing to stick to the aging agenda. They will be working, playing, and spending well past the age their mothers had hung up their heels and taken to a cozy chair.
When I think of my grandmother being 60 all those years ago, I have a sneaking suspicion that she would have enjoyed a morning at the gym, an afternoon sailing on the Bay, and even a date every now and then. And I can’t help but wonder whether all she would have needed to sport that pair of in-line skates was permission.
Today, our boomers are pioneering the new age of old age, and permission is granted. So buckle up your skates and enjoy!