Written by Alison Johnson
At 81, Emily Kimball aims to redefine old age – and have a blast doing it.
Emily Kimball has had to accept that she’s slowing down. She’s had to acknowledge osteoporosis, arthritis in one knee, hearing loss, severe fatigue from chemotherapy during two bouts with breast cancer—one of just this past summer—and general wear and tear on her body.
But “slowing down” is all relative. At 81, Kimball aims to exercise at least five days a week: two hours of doubles tennis twice a week, three-mile walks before breakfast, laps at her neighborhood pool and 30- to 40-mile bike rides.
The Richmond resident also has tackled big challenges in her 60s and 70s, including hiking the entire 2,100-plus-mile Appalachian Trail with a 45-pound pack—she climbed the final mountain in Maine 10 days before her 71st birthday—riding a loaded bike across America at age 62 and taking a wilderness canoe adventure on a river in Maine at 78.
As an author and motivational speaker, Kimball’s goal is to encourage seniors to be as physically and mentally active as their bodies allow. She wants to redefine old age as a time for taking risks and chasing dreams. “A lot of people think they’re no good, finished, boring, and that they’re just going to sit home and sulk,” she says. “Instead, they should figure out what they love doing most and try to do it, even if it’s with some limitations. Never stop asking the question: ‘What can I do?’”
Kimball’s passion is the outdoors, and she has never let obstacles get in her way. As a child at a time with no girls’ sports teams, she walked around with a baseball and bat and arranged pick-up games after school. As an 80-year-old with breast cancer, she dragged herself on short walks even when chemotherapy left her struggling with exhausting side effects.
Speed isn’t important, she says—just getting out there is. When she meets up with her Saturday biking group, for example, she’ll usually ride behind the pack but then meet up with her friends for coffee. “I’ve figured out ways to do these things I love and not feel rejected because I am slow,” she says.
Come fall, Kimball will be done with radiation treatments for cancer diagnosed nine years after her first fight against the disease. Doctors were able to treat her aggressively because she is so strong for her age, and she fully intends to return to adventuring this fall, including a planned backpacking trip in False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach and a possible trip to Australia. “I’m enjoying my life,” she says, “and I intend to keep enjoying it.”
IN HER WORDS
My basic life philosophy is… to decide what your priorities are, what you feel most passionate about and make plans to go for them.
To me, “old age” means… slowing down some, keeping in touch with the world and with friends and staying as active as your body allows.
I love staying active because… it is my passion and it makes me extremely happy. All of my exercise is done outside. I am not a gym person. Too stuffy!
My message to other seniors is… don’t listen to all the negativity out there about old folks. Thumb your nose at the ageism in our culture and just go right ahead and go for your dreams.
I deal with the physical frustrations of aging by… realizing I can still do what I like, just at a slower pace—and finding friends who can tolerate my pace!
I tackled the Appalachian Trail in my 60s because… I adore being out in nature for long periods of time. I prefer a simple life, and carrying everything you need on your back—you couldn’t get simpler than that.
The greatest lesson I learned on that journey was… how wonderful it was to be part of the trail’s intergenerational community, where older hikers were respected as we all advanced to our goal of finishing the trail.
My scariest moment on the trail was… when hiking alone in a bad rain storm, I fell and cut my head and had to hike on through the thunder and lightning to the next shelter a few miles away.
And my best moment was… there were so many best moments, but maybe the joy of reaching the end of the trail at the top of Mt. Katahdin (the highest mountain in Maine, at 5,268 feet), which was a very hard climb.
Something that would surprise people about me is… I am not as self-confident as I appear.
Born in Boston and spent a good part of her childhood in Rochester, N.Y.
Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Northeastern University, master’s in sociology and African studies from Boston University
Divorced with three grown children and one grandchild
Keeping up with family, tennis, canoeing, hiking, backpacking, swimming, writing, reading, gardening flowers and vegetables, taking classes and participating in discussion groups