Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

May 22, 2011

USA: Nearly 90-year-old man stays healthy one step at a time

YAKIMA, Washington / / Health / May 22, 2011

By Adriana Janovich / Yakima Herald-Republic

When Ike Simonian walks up and down Washington Avenue, he ponders how much the world -- and the people in it -- have changed in the nine decades he's been around.

Sometimes, he talks to the horses and cows in the fields along one of his three regular routes.

Mostly, though, he thinks about Billie.

"We had a lot of good times together," says the widower who met the love of his life when he was a soldier and she was hitchhiking, a waitress who needed a ride back across state lines. He proposed three weeks later, and they were married exactly 64 years and four days before she died last June. Ike still misses her every day.

Ike Simonian, 89, takes one of his daily three-mile walks along West Washington Ave., in Yakima, Wash.  Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic

So he walks. He walks to keep busy. He walks to keep the weight off.

And he walks for his heart.

Rain, shine or snow, he doesn't like to miss a single day of exercise. But if he has to, he doubles up the next, walking once in the morning and again in the afternoon or evening.

And that discipline just might help him live longer.

Research shows active older adults like Ike are more apt to remain independent and avoid age-related health problems than those who don't exercise. And that information could become even more important as the number of older folks -- those 65 and above -- grows.

According to the federal Administration on Aging, one in eight Americans or 13 percent of the U.S. population, were 65 and older in 2009. The percentage is projected to climb to 19 percent by 2030.

"The population is going to increase considerably, starting now with the 60 and over (set) and then later with 85 and older," says Carolyn New, a program coordinator with Aging and Long Term Care in Yakima. "That means there are going to be fewer people to provide the care, and more people need it."

Yakima County already has a larger older adult population than the national average, about 18 percent of population -- or nearly 43,000 of about 239,100 -- are 60 and over.

While New says many older folks are in better physical shape than the senior set of 50 years ago -- thanks in a large part to more research and information -- she stresses the importance of keeping off extra weight, eating lots of fruits and vegetables and doing range-of-motion exercises.

"Even if you're not able to move around much, you need to keep those joints moving so they don't get frozen up so it's easier to move the body parts that still work," she says.

For Isaac "Ike" Simonian, walking "is my priority. I feel better when I'm outside doing something."

As people age, their hearts lose elasticity and mass, putting them at higher risk of heart failure.

But a team of researchers recently found older people who exercised consistently four to five times a week throughout their lifetimes were able to maintain youthful heart mass.

They also found those who regularly exercised six to seven times a week during their lifetimes not only maintained mass but gained new mass, even topping levels in people ages 25 to 34 who didn't exercise.

The researchers defined exercise as an aerobic activity -- jogging, cycling or walking, like Ike -- generally lasting 20 minutes or longer.

Ike walks for about an hour every day. Usually, he walks alone. And when he turns 89 in a couple of weeks, he'll be out there walking -- "good Lord willing" -- to celebrate.

He's already outlasted his mother and father, who died at 53 and 73 respectively.

Ike started his walking regimen almost five years ago in order to drop a few pounds. He was carrying 222 of them on his 5-foot-8-inch frame.

"Too heavy for me," says the great-grandfather and World War II veteran, who dropped down to 177.

Back then, he walked more, about 8 miles a day. He cut back when he pulled a hip muscle last fall. These days, his weight hovers around 200.

"I eat a lot of candy," he admits. "Anything that's chocolate."

He enjoys hand-dipping walnuts from the tree in his yard in milk chocolate. He shells them himself, often giving away 2-pound bags.

He has other hobbies, too. When he's not out walking, he remains active in other ways, often woodworking in his garage shop, larger than his house, the same one in which he's lived since 1963.

He builds birdhouses, folding chairs and tables, cabinets and cutting boards, all affixed with a tag that lists his phone number and declares the item "Made by Ike Simonian."

Last year, he spent four months restoring an antique, wooden, John Deere wagon. He also volunteers with a Boy Scout troop associated with his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He also rakes his leaves and mows his lawn, which stretches some 7/10ths of an acre behind his West Valley home.

All this impresses Scott Wilson, who lives nearby and doesn't think Ike looks at all like he's nearing 90.

"He's just amazing," says Wilson, who's in that 65-and-over age-range himself. Ike, Wilson says, is "tougher than nails. His energy level is still very high. He's busy all the time."

For safety, Ike faces oncoming traffic when he walks up and down Washington. Sometimes, he counts the cars.

He picks up coins when he spots them on the sidewalk or in the street. He also picks up aluminum cans.

And, "When I pass the animals, I talk to them," he says, asking affectionately, "Are you getting enough to eat?"

Ike was born and raised on a farm in Colorado, the third of eight children of Armenian immigrants. With a laugh, he says, "I was the laziest kid on the farm."

That claim is difficult to believe these days, watching him take his daily hike and listening to him talk about Billie.

Photographs of Ike Simonian and his late wife, Billie, on the fireplace hearth of his home in Yakima, Wash.
Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic
Elgeva "Billie" Simonian died June 25. She was 84.

This is why Ike loved her, loves her still: "She was pretty and slim. She was polite."

And at the same time, he says, "She said what was on her mind."

Ike still wears his wedding band. And he still laughs when he recalls how he met her.

She was a single mom sitting on a wooden bridge in Kansas with a girlfriend, a fellow waitress who worked with her at the same restaurant in Oklahoma, where Billie was born and raised.

Ike was stationed in Kansas with the Army and driving a black 1941 Mercury on the way back to the base with an Army buddy. They offered the waitresses a ride.

And the next night -- a Friday -- on a whim, they went back to Oklahoma, catching Billie and her friend as they were heading out on a double date. They ditched those dates and went out to dinner with the soldiers instead.

"I just fell for her, so I proposed and she accepted," Ike says, matter-of-factly. "She hesitated for a minute; it's true. Her mother didn't like it. Her brother didn't either."

They tied the knot anyway at the justice of the peace -- "just the two of us" on June 21, 1946.

She's still with him, her ashes enclosed in an urn atop the mantle above the fireplace, near portraits of the couple.

"We're going to be buried together, when I die, in Tahoma Cemetery," Ike says.

Until then -- "good Lord willing" -- he'll keep on walking, facing the oncoming traffic and thinking about his beloved Billie.

* Information from McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.

Copyright © 2011 Yakima Herald-Republic