ARIEL – Dean and Jan Johnson prioritize their hobbies. So much so that they each have a dedicated space in their Ariel home for their activities. Dean, 83, has what he calls his “man cave,” a garage full of his projects, like the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air he restored. Jan, 84, has a “she shed” where she prints her photographs on mugs which she sells at stores in Cougar and Amboy.
Their involvement in these hobbies probably contributes to their vigor.
“Longevity is sort of a combination of luck and lifestyle,” said Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, director of geriatrics at Oregon Health & Science University and author of “The Gift of Caring” and the book at appear “The Gift of Aging”. “Genetics play a fairly small role.”
The factors that shape longevity begin before birth, with socioeconomics and maternal health, she said. Even early childhood education affects later chances of developing dementia. And we’ve all heard about the importance of diet and exercise. But ongoing social and cognitive engagement is also key, Eckstrom said.
“A lot of people focus on work and think, ‘This is who I am.’ When they retire, they have no way to rebuild their sense of self, and they just die,” Eckstrom said.
When the original Social Security Act of 1935 set the retirement age at 65, that was roughly how long people could expect to live, well below the current average American lifespan of 76. years, she said. The retreat was not to last for decades.
“Older people who maintain their focus have a more successful aging trajectory,” she said. “In the United States, for many people, work is what they do. They don’t have many hobbies. Those who have had a lot of hobbies do much better in retirement.
Dean retired at age 67 from his position as Director of Public Works at Fort Richardson, Alaska. Jan retired at age 65 from his job as an accountant for the Alaska Department of Transportation.
Even while the Johnsons were working, they pursued outside pursuits. Jan has volunteered for Special Olympics and the iconic Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska. Dean participated in drag races and worked on his Chevy.
“It took me a whole series of weekends one winter to polish all the stainless steel trim,” he recalls. “I was just looking forward to finishing breakfast and taking care of it.”
The Johnsons follow their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They go out and are about to go to auto shows or search for antiques for Dean to restore, like old lubricants that were used to dispense gallons of oil in auto shops. Jan learns to use a laser machine to engrave words and images on wood, leather and metal.
Dean and Jan both served in the US Navy in the late 1950s, but they didn’t know each other at the time. They have been married for 32 years. They reunited after their decades-long marriage ended.
They also overcame other difficulties. One of Dean’s four sons died in a car accident at the age of 21. When Dean was 26, he broke his neck heckling with his brothers in his hometown of Astoria, Oregon. When he could not continue his job as an auto mechanic after his injury, he went to college to study drawing, which evolved into a career as an engineer.
When the Johnsons moved into their Ariel home in 2019, they had an extra garage built to accommodate Dean’s mobility needs.
“Dean with his shop,” Jan said, “is really what keeps him alive.”