Thriving at 85

Arlene Leyden
Courtesy of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota

When she first spoke up — at a meeting of the writers’ group at a senior residence where I volunteer — her remark surprised me: When you’re in your 70s, she said, they think of you as just getting older. When you’re in your 80s, they start giving you respect.

Now that I think about it, it makes sense. I react differently when I learn that someone is in their 80s. It’s kind of like a magic marker, with a special meaning. I just figure they know more, they’ve survived more and, if they’re wise, they’ve ignored more and laughed more. Besides, I’m hanging around with more 80-year-olds these days. They’re my fishing buddies, my coffee mates, my concert companions.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, celebrating its 85th birthday, is turning a spotlight on men and women in their 80s, featuring them on a special webpage with short stories, pictures and videos. They range in age from 80 to 89. They sing, dance, act, garden, referee, exercise and volunteer. Judging from their pictures, they’re a joyous lot: on the move, in the mix and of the moment.

And none moreso than Arlene Leyden, who’ll turn 90 this year. I know Leyden from my days teaching journalism at the University of St. Thomas. Her husband, Don, really started the department in the late 1950s and, for 15 years, Leyden was the college’s event planner.

“I was kind of its Perle Mesta,” she said of the infamous American socialite.

Leyden clearly shares Mesta’s grace and grit: Her husband died at age 57, after their four children were out of high school, so Leyden stayed in the family house in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood, went to work and kept the faith.

When she retired from St. Thomas, she started to travel regularly and volunteer frequently. Over the years, she’s been a tutor at Catholic schools, a food server at Dorothy Day, a driver for Meals on Wheels and a volunteer for Little Sisters of the Poor.

And these days, she’s more involved than ever with her family, now including eight grandchildren.

“Three of my children live in the Twin Cities,” she said. “I have my iPhone — and you can bet I am a texting grandmother.”

The grandkids have seen the story about Leyden on the Blue Cross website, describing her love for acting and performing. She began as a student at White Bear Lake High School, playing the role of a Russian countess in You Can’t Take It With You.

“I think my grandchildren were more impressed by the 82-year-old woman who could still do the splits,” she said of another thriver from St. Louis Park.

Leyden can still act and perform. She’s been in several commercials including two for Best Buy and Grand Casino, and she performed an “impromptu monologue” for the folks at Blue Cross, poking fun at her kids for even suggesting she think about “an old folks’ home.”

Judging from her talk and actions, Leyden has no intention of slowing down, leaving her home or restricting her outlook.

“My parents both lived to be well over 100,” she said, “and were married for 83 years.”

If Blue Cross keeps its “thriving in their 80s” program through next year, I’ll be eligible.

That depends, however, on how they define “thriving.” I don’t water ski, jitterbug or pole vault. And a few months ago, I started going to a podiatrist to get my toenails trimmed. But I take the stairs instead of the elevator. I can find my car in the parking lot. And I haven’t sat on my glasses for at least a month.

Learn more

Blue Cross Blue Shield is shining the spotlight on Minnesota 80-somethings who are living life to the fullest and showing just how vibrant life can be at any age. To nominate a friend or even yourself, go to

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].