The number of people aged 65 and over is expected to double in New Zealand in 20 years, according to the Ministry of Social Development. We're living longer, but are we living better? Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken spoke to local experts and residents to learn whether our best years are in the rear-view mirror - or lie on the road ahead.

We're in the front room of Rob McGregor's Marine Parade home, sipping coffee, watching paddle boarders ply a flat, shimmery sea, when the Mount Maunganui artist says he's not sure he wants to discuss the prime of life.

"I don't actually think of myself as older, so I don't like the subject in one respect, because it's kind of like saying, 'Here's an old bugger'. I don't want to be put up, as, you know, an old person doing well."

The 75-year-old isn't merely doing well. He's a kind of local Leonardo da Vinci: Not only is he a fulltime artist, he tutors, plays multiple instruments and recently started composing music.

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In addition, he's a world-class decathlete who first pole-vaulted at age 58.

"I did all the events anyway, and I usually won them. I decided I could take the record."

Rob did take the decathlon record for his age group that year, later improving it to achieve another decathlon record for the 60-65 age group, both of which still stand.

He has won the decathlon every time he's competed in the New Zealand champs since, gaining fourth place at the World Champs in Spain.

He competed in field events in the 75-79 age group at the New Zealand Master's Athletics in Tauranga this year, winning six golds.

Rob McGregor tutoring an art class at Ocean Shores retirement village. Photo/Andrew Warner
Rob McGregor tutoring an art class at Ocean Shores retirement village. Photo/Andrew Warner

But time and training have taken a toll - Rob has been sidelined from field events by a weight-lifting injury and says he hasn't run in years.

"I'd run from here down the Mount six times and around, probably till I was in my early 60s." It took him longer to recover from running as he aged.

"I think you train differently and you just need to listen to your body."

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The artist's experience echoes findings of studies published on BBC.com, which recently ran a piece called "What's the prime of your life?"

The article says according to medical literature, "you are at your sexual peak in your 20s, your physical peak in your 30s, your mental peak in your 40s and 50s and at your happiest in your 60s - but these are just averages, so your own trajectory may follow very different paths."

You don't have to do extreme things to prove you're capable. We're moving into a no-age definition world.

It states, " ... you may have also passed the zenith of your creativity - most Nobel-prize winning discoveries have been made by around 40 ... "

"I think that's rubbish," says Rob.

"You don't have to win a Nobel Prize to be creative. I think people can be creative in business, they can be creative in teaching, in writing - all sorts of people are creative. ... people can be creative all their lives.

In fact, you may become more creative when you have less worries about getting things right." Rob points to four paintings of the Mount base track.

"I'm probably becoming more adventurous, in a way. I'm finding this interesting in that I'm doing each one in the same style but with different treatments. I think that's fun, because for me, play is one of the most important things we do. I suppose my life's been all play."

He's not the only one dismissing aspects of graphs purporting to show age-related performance. Tauranga social gerontologist Carole Gordon says much of what's been written about ageing is out of date.

"Today's world is about living longer and living more.

So people aren't dying off and dead by 80, which is what those charts show. Well [healthy] people can expect to live over 100 years old."

Gordon says keys to wellness are attitude about life, genes, plus social and economic environment.

"You don't have to do extreme things to prove you're capable. We're moving into a no-age definition world."

Psychologists say a youthful outlook can cause people to be more active and live longer.

Tauranga Age Concern helps locals stay engaged through programmes such as its Steady as You Go falls prevention classes, as well as technology and other educational workshops.

If a young couple are frantically busy, the first thing they drop is sex; the second thing they drop over time is emotional intimacy. In retirement, we have time to nurture our relationships, but if there's nothing to nurture because it's fallen apart so badly, we may not have more sex or better sex.

Age Concern general manager Tanya Smith says it's true the body slows and some people's physical health declines as they get older.

But Smith, nearly 50, believes we improve with age.

"You feel more confident, you know what you want in life; you know what's more important and what you want to focus on."

Some studies show happiness increases in your 60s and may not peak until your 70s.

Gordon, a 70-something, still works as a consultant and researcher. "I'm actively in the best stage of my life."

LIBIDO FOR LIFE: Sex therapist Mary Hodson says people who nurture their relationships can continue to enjoy sex no matter their age. Photo/John Borren
LIBIDO FOR LIFE: Sex therapist Mary Hodson says people who nurture their relationships can continue to enjoy sex no matter their age. Photo/John Borren

As for libido, accredited Tauranga sex therapist Mary Hodson say couples can have a healthy sex life no matter their age, but must foster their relationship through intervals when career and family responsibilities threaten to snuff desire.

"If a young couple are frantically busy, the first thing they drop is sex; the second thing they drop over time is emotional intimacy. In retirement, we have time to nurture our relationships, but if there's nothing to nurture because it's fallen apart so badly, we may not have more sex or better sex."

Hodson says her oldest clients are over 85.

"There is quite a bit of research that shows as people get older, providing they've got a viable, emotional and sexually intimate relationship, they're probably having more sex once they reach retirement years than many younger people."

ANOTHER form of exercise people can enjoy well into their 80s is running.

Research shows that while sprinters peak in their 20s, ultra-distance runners may not hit their stride until about 40.

Te Puna's Debbie Clark completed her first Ironman triathlon (about 4km swimming, 180km cycling, 42km running) at age 53, after she'd retired from teaching and her children had left home.

HARD YARDS: Te Puna's Debbie Clark plans to compete in her fifth Ironman in March. The 58-year-old completed her first Ironman at age 53. Photo/Andrew Warner
HARD YARDS: Te Puna's Debbie Clark plans to compete in her fifth Ironman in March. The 58-year-old completed her first Ironman at age 53. Photo/Andrew Warner

She's finished four Ironmen, winning her age group in Melbourne and finishing 13th for her age group at the 2012 World Championship in Kona. Clark says her competitive nature means she trains fastidiously.

"I don't think I'm going to do a triathlon to feel better. I go in thinking I want to do the best I possibly can and maybe win my age group. I don't feel like I'm ageing. I still demand as much of myself physically in events as I did 10 years ago."

She is 58 and says while she may not be running as well as she used to, she's probably picked up in the bike and the swim.

"A lot of the triathlons I'm doing, the people are 10 to 15 years younger than me. People my own age look at me like I'm crazy, but I love the feeling of being fit and the sense of achievement."

I'm very happily married. If you have a good relationship, that keeps you young, especially if your wife is over 20 years younger than you.

Ultra-runner Ross Steele, 58, of Tauranga, is aiming for his 100th marathon at the end of next year.

"It took me 21 years to do my first 50, then four years to do the second 50."

Steele has run marathons on all seven continents (he has a "7" tattooed on his left calf) and finished his first 100km race, the Tarawera Ultra, this year.

Despite niggling injuries and the notion fast times are behind him, the enjoyment of people he meets while running in bright colours and tulle keeps his legs moving.

"I've got five tutus now, and a kilt - I'm just living the dream and hope to be doing this for many years to come."

Running coach Kerry Suter says anyone can become a long-distance runner, no matter their age, though most can expect slower race times and longer recovery periods.

Suter says it takes three to five years to build a base and a body that's fit for distance.

"I've spent a lot of time with people who didn't start running until their 50s, and they're running ultras (anything over 42.2km) in their 80s.

"You can put those three to five years anywhere in your life." Artist McGregor says

although his running's on hold, his best work may lie ahead.

"I just want to do something as well as I can."

His secret to living well, besides having good genes, is his wife, Joanne.

"I'm very happily married. If you have a good relationship, that keeps you young, especially if your wife is over 20 years younger than you."