VICTORIA - He was 73 years old when he found his calling in life.

Victoria's George Hiemstra says he heard drum beats about seven years ago and something inside him said that's what's been missing: pounding a drum.

At 80, the retired practical nurse, fruit-stand operator and artist, says he now drums whenever he can, admitting his banging can irritate neighbours and at times sends his wife outside for walks.

A spoken-word poet, who calls himself an advocacy artist, Hiemstra says he doesn't feel old, because drumming keeps him young.

"You have to learn to emphasize emotion to dramatize your emotion,'' he says. "I took that to heart and I drummed a lot.''

Hiemstra represents what appears to be a growing trend among elderly Canadians. People are living fuller, more active lives well beyond 65, traditionally the age when people have faded into retirement.

The octogenarian belongs to the second-fastest growing age group in Canada, according to census data released Tuesday. A record 1.2 million Canadians were 80 or older in 2006 -- a 25-per-cent increase since the previous census in 2001.

And, the latest snapshot of an aging society found that more than 4,600 Canadians were 100 years or older. That's a 22 per cent jump in centenarians since the census five years earlier.

Victoria is a Mecca for the elderly, the survey showed, boasting the highest proportion of residents over 80 for any of Canada's metropolitan areas. Some 6.4 per cent of the population of Victoria and its surrounding area falls into that demographic, compared to the national average of 3.7 per cent.

The city also boasts the country's third-highest concentration of people 65 and older (17.8 per cent), behind second-place Peterborough, Ont., at 18.2 per cent and Kelowna, B.C., at 19 per cent.

"Victoria is such a wonderful place to be,'' said Neena Chappell, the research chairwoman in social gerentology at the University of Victoria's school on aging.

"One big thing that Victoria offers is a relatively moderate climate,'' she said. "The older people, generally speaking, don't like the extremes of hot and cold. Victoria is moderate. We don't have Winnipeg winters and we don't have Prairie summers.''

There are also loads of activities geared toward seniors, including non-traditional yoga classes and old-fashioned quilting bees.

Hiemstra stands in the carpeted living room of his homey, but small co-op apartment in suburban Victoria preparing to perform his poem Tree-Talk. His fingers circle the drum in search of the spot where he believes he can make the forest talk.

He says the mystical voice of the West Coast forest is about to spring to life from his hand-held drum. His only wish is that he had many more years ahead of him to use his drums to illustrate his art.

Like Hiemstra, Mona Perry says she does her best to keep her world open, fresh and exciting despite what many would consider her old age.

She just turned 81, and the former Calgary youth counsellor, Salmon Arm, B.C., councillor and businesswoman says she's known for her salty, off-the-cuff comments and a spirited attitude.

"I was raised with five boys and I love guys,'' Parry says candidly. "I'm quite unusual for my age.''

She injured her left arm in a fall at her apartment and can't drive her car until she's rehabilitated, but that hasn't stopped her from working toward the day when she can get back into her Toyota Tercel and zip around Victoria.

After a recent safe-driving class for seniors, Perry declared: "I'll beat it. I want to drive till the bloody wheels fall off my car.''

Parry says there are two things she doesn't like about getting old: younger people who talk to her in slow sentences as if she's hard of hearing, and most elderly people themselves.

"I swear I can't stand people talking about their pills and operations,'' says Parry. "All they talk about is good doctors, bad doctors, more pills, better pills. The hell with it.''

Parry says she's always tried to stir the pot with her comments, but inside her second-floor apartment near Victoria's Beacon Hill Park, she becomes more reflective.

"Retirement doesn't mean quitting,'' Parry says. "It means working at a different level. I couldn't stand being retired.''

Parry has been living in Victoria for less than a year, but says she can't imagine living anywhere else.

The lush vegetation and the ocean breezes keep her feeling young, she says. So loves going for early morning walks on near-deserted streets.

Chappell says not only can Canadians expect to live longer, they can also expect to live healthier.

"It was the case at one time that we were living longer, but they were years with illness and disability and the new statistics show that more of those added years of life are actually healthy years,'' she says.

Life expectancy for Canadians in 2006 stood at 77.7 years for men and 82.5 years for women, Statistics Canada reported Tuesday.

"Thirty years ago you would expect the regular 80-year-old to be dead,'' says Chappell.

Thirty years ago, most people considered 65 to be the right age for retirement, Chappell says. Today, many people consider 65 too young to retire, and some governments, including British Columbia, have introduced laws proposing scrapping mandatory retirement.

"When you are talking aggregate statistics, more people now feel younger at 65 than would have been true 30 years ago,'' says Chappell.

She credits the longer, healthier lives of Canadians to solid public infrastructure measures and a relatively clean environment as opposed to health-care improvements. Clean drinking water and fresh air does wonders for people over time, Chappell says.

Hiemstra says life isn't as physically demanding on people as it used to be.

"I remember when I was a boy in Holland. When we went to church and the old farmers came in and they were crooked and could hardly walk, and they were maybe 65 or 70 years.''