ARIEL — Dean and Jan Johnson prioritize their hobbies. So much so that they each have dedicated space at their Ariel home for their pursuits. Dean, 83, has what he calls his “man cave,” a garage filled with his projects, like the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air he restored. Jan, 84, has a “she shed” where she prints her photography onto mugs that she sells at stores in Cougar and Amboy.
Their engagement in these hobbies likely contributes to their vigor.
“Longevity is somewhat 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 forthcoming book “The Gift of Aging.” “Genetics plays 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 continuing social and cognitive engagement is also key, Eckstrom said.
“So many focus on work and think, ‘This is who I am.’ When they retire, they have no way to recraft 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 about how long people could expect to live, far short of today’s average American life span of 76 years, she said. Retirement wasn’t expected to last decades.
“Older adults who maintain purpose have a more successful aging trajectory,” she said. “In the U.S., for a lot of people, work is what they do. They don’t have a lot of hobbies. Those who have had a lot of hobbies are much more successful in retirement.”
Dean retired at 67 from his job as public works director at Fort Richardson in Alaska. Jan retired at 65 from her job as a bookkeeper for Alaska’s transportation department.
Even while the Johnsons were working, they pursued outside activities. Jan volunteered for the Special Olympics and Alaska’s iconic Iditarod dog sledding race. Dean competed in drag racing and worked on his Chevy.
“It took me a whole set of weekends one winter to buff all the stainless steel trim,” he recalled. “I just couldn’t wait to finish breakfast and get after it.”
The Johnsons keep up with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They get out and about to participate in car shows or hunt for antiques for Dean to restore, like old lubesters that were used to dispense quarts of oil in auto shops. Jan is learning to use a laser machine to etch words and pictures into wood, leather and metal.
Both Dean and Jan served in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s, but they didn’t know each other then. They’ve been married for 32 years. They found each other after both had decades-long marriages end.
They’ve overcome other hardships, as well. One of Dean’s four sons died in a car wreck at age 21. When Dean was 26, he broke his neck horsing around with his brothers in his hometown of Astoria, Ore. When he couldn’t continue his job as an auto mechanic after his injury, he went to college to study drafting, which evolved into an engineering career.
When the Johnsons settled into their Ariel home in 2019, they had an extra garage built to meet Dean’s mobility needs.
“Dean with his shop,” Jan said, “it’s really what keeps him living.”