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Living longer isn’t at top of all agendas

Rex Rutkoski
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William Douglas of Greensburg on a 'bucket list' trip to Machu Picchu, 2006
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Al Andrews, 75, and his wife Rosanne, 73, pose for a portrait in their Mount Lebanon home on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Rosanne, 73, and Al Andrews, 75, pose for a portrait in their Mount Lebanon home on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Some of the single malt scotch whiskeys in a collection owned by William Douglas of Greensburg on Wednesday, December 18, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
William Douglas of Greensburg takes a walk around Greensburg on Wednesday, December 18, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
William Douglas of Greensburg
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Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Kaitlin Omecinski, right, and her grandmother, Melbalee Giovannelli of New Kensington, work putting hand baked fudge and candies into containers at Melbalee's New Kensington home. The two women have been baking together for about 10 years, this is the first year that Katelin had the lead in the baking and according to her grandmother Melbalee, she was in charge from scratch to finish ,Sunday, December 15, New Kensington.
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Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Joyce Broadus, manager of the Hill district branch of Carnegie Library, at the computer doing research relating to the ’40 census, on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
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Dr. Christine Herb, director geriatric education., West Penn Allegheny Health System
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Janice Russo of Greensburg
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Dr. Charles Reynolds, director of UPMC and Pitt's Aging Institute

William Douglas, 66, didn’t exactly make the proverbial leap for joy when he heard that humans might, in the not-too-distant future, be able to live productively and in good health until at least age 120.

Like most Americans polled recently by the Pew Research Center, the Greensburg resident was skeptical. Fifty-six percent say they would not want medical treatments that would allow them to live dramatically longer lives, Pew found, while 51 percent believe such life spans would be bad for society, draining natural resources, straining the economy and impacting the environment, employment opportunities and housing availability.

About 70 percent of Americans say they would ideally like to live to between 79 and 100.

People already are living longer that they once did, and the U.S. Census reports that every six years the average American life span rises by a year. The overall average life expectancy in the United States currently is 78.7 years, with women tending to live longer (81.0 years) than men (76.2 years).

While Douglas, who retired five years ago from an engineering firm for which he traveled the world, says he “certainly would not want to live forever,” he wants to be around as long as he can properly care for himself, “finally expiring with a modicum of dignity,” knowing he had not been a burden to anyone.

He finds the freedom to simply follow his curiosity each day to be a real joy.

“My inner voice says: ‘You’ve been lucky. Appreciate the life we gave you. Don’t try to keep moving the goalposts on us.’ My thinking is being grateful for what I have and enjoying it as long as it lasts. A 120-year life span sounds rather long to me; 85 to 90 years is about right,” he says.

While it’s nice to think he could live productively and in good health to 120, Al Andrews, 75, of Mt. Lebanon says “that doesn’t assure me I could still be living with my spouse or have other members of my family and friends still alive. Loneliness could be a big factor, as would the condition of our world.”

He does not fear death.

“Sometimes a person might want to live forever because they are afraid of dying. Somewhere you have to face up to the fact we all die sometime,” he says.

He and his wife, Rosanne, 73, are enjoying an active life volunteering, socializing, traveling and maintaining their home.

He is a founding member of Mt. Lebanon Village, an intergenerational network of community volunteers and neighbors who provide seniors with the support needed to continue living in their own homes as they age and stay connected to the community. That includes transportation, socializing, cultural opportunities, home visits and screened referrals to maintain their residences.

Tracy Limegrover, Village executive director, says her experience working with the aging community in the South Hills is that “they never seem worried about living to a certain age, but they seem most concerned with the quality of the time they have left to spend.”

“One’s heart and soul and desire to contribute do not diminish just because one’s chronological age increases,” she says. “Remaining positive is the only way to live life.”

That’s why Janice Russo, 71, of Greensburg considers Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” with its uplifting message, her theme song. “That’s how I really run my life,” she says.

It has been a very colorful one so far.

“I’ve been telling people all along I will have to be 120 in order to have my student loan paid off,” she jokes.

At 58, after achieving success in the corporate world as only the second female manager in a 200-year-old Philadelphia-based insurance company, she decided to go to college “to prove something to myself” and as a gift to herself. By 64, she had three degrees, including a master’s in business administration.

This mother of three and grandmother of six who lives alone recently taught in Europe for three years.

“I make my own way in life and stay away from people who are annoying,” she says.

“The only way that living to 120 would appeal to me is if I was frozen in time, if my body didn’t change. Who wants to look like a prune?” she says. She concedes that it might be interesting to be around that long “just to watch the different changes that take place on this Earth.”

Joyce Broadus, 66, manager of the Hill District branch of the Carnegie Library, says she would like to make it to 120 if she could be productive and reasonably healthy and still enjoy books, music and life.

“I would think it would be kind of neat,” she says. “Maybe I could find out the answers to some things, some of the questions of life, and see what medical and social strides there are, whether the world was closer together or further apart on a number of issues.”

She is undecided as to whether dramatically extended life would be good for society.

“It will all depend on how important people are in the next 50 years, as opposed to technology,” she says. “How do we still communicate with each other? Is it all through machines? If it is, what happens when we get lonely, when you are the last of your children, relatives and friends? What will that feel like?”

Dorothy Myers, 81, of Elizabeth seems willing to take a chance on that outcome.

“I would like to live to 120. I would try to make up for all the things I didn’t do and things I wanted to do and things I should have done,” she says. “I really don’t think it would be a good thing for society to live that long, but we would love to live that long, given a chance.”

World War II veteran Carl King, 89, of Bridgeport, Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, says, “I have been shooting for 100 years for the last 40 years,” and he wouldn’t mind trying to reach 120.

“I’d like to live longer to see what happens to this old world,” he says.

Melbalee Giovannelli, 77, of New Kensington is trying hard to make it to 101 as a special gift to her granddaughter, Katelin Omecinski, 17, of New Kensington, with whom she is very close.

A few years ago, Omecinski, who had been pondering silently, told her, “When mommy is 80, I’ll be 40, and if you really have to go, then I guess I’ll be OK.”

Giovannelli told her, “Grandma will do her absolute best to stay here to 101, and if I can’t, I’ll be watching you every day from heaven where I hope I’ll be going. I don’t want to be looking up.”

She now tells all of her doctors she wants to live to 101. “They tell me, ‘We’ll do our part if you do yours,’ ” she says.

Omecinski, who turns 18 in March, says she finds her grandma is “really fun to be around” and thinks it might just be “awesome” to be able to live to 120. “When you are young,” she says, “you think you are invincible.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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