Not long ago I was fond of bragging, with more than a small amount of smug self- satisfaction, about completing Circus 101 class at the San Francisco Circus School shortly after I became eligible for Medicare. Although it was quickly evident that I can’t do upside down any more without tending to throw up, I was more flexible than the muscular hunks and quite good, if I do say so, on the top of the pyramids. I was always the top of the pyramid because nobody wanted to step on the little old lady. Moments of grandeur and glory, those were.
Well, tell that to Ilse Telesmanich, 90. She’ll be hiking in South Africa this summer. Or Tom Lackey, who is into wing-walking over the English Channel at 89. (“My family thinks I’m mad,” Mr. Lackey said in a telephone interview discussing the flight with New York Times writer Kirk Johnson — his 20th wing-walk. “I probably am.”)
Intensely active older men and women who have the means and see the twilight years as just another stage of exploration are pushing further and harder, tossing aside presumed limitations. And the global travel and leisure industry, long focused on youth, is racing to keep up.
“This is an emerging market phenomenon based on tens of millions of longer-lived men and women with more youth vitality than ever imagined,” said Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and author who has written widely about aging and economics.
And the so-called experiential marketplace — sensation, education, adventure and culture, estimated at $56 billion and growing, according to a new study from George Washington University — is where much of that new old-money is headed.
At the Grand Circle Corporation, for example, a Boston-based company that specializes in older travelers, adventure tours have gone from 16 percent of passenger volume in 2001 to 50 percent for advance bookings this year, even as the average traveler’s age has risen to 68 from 62.
At Exploritas, a nonprofit educational travel group previously known as Elderhostel, the proportion of people over 75 choosing adventure-tour options is up 27 percent since 2004. The sharpest growth has been in the over-85 crowd, more than 70 percent.
At VBT, a bike touring company in Vermont that does rides in countries around the world, the number of bikers over 70 has doubled in the last 10 years.
“Unusual is way more popular now,” said Alan E. Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle, “and with this audience, that’s a major shift.”
It’s not all fun and high adventure — medical insurance with companies such as InsureMyTrip.com is likely to quadruple, transporting medications can be problematical, and ordinary risk factors (though wiser elders often fare better than macho youngers) remain.
But it’s enough to make me renew my Exploritas membership, hit the par course more often and shut up about circus school.