The Longevity Project, Part 3: Finding a sense of purpose and passion in daily life

Volunteer “kiddie kuddler” Pat Thomas holds 6-month-old Berkley Oamek at the GrandKids Child Care Center in Steamboat Springs. Thomas volunteers her time to help at the center. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series on aging in Routt County with a focus on the Blue Zone principles for living a long and healthy life.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In Okinawa, Japan, it’s called “ikigai.” On the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, it’s called “plan de vida.”

Best described as “a sense of purpose,” having one can add seven years to your life, according to research from the Blue Zone communities — the five locations across the globe where people are living the longest and healthiest.

It doesn’t matter what that sense of purpose is, and for each individual it is different at every stage of life. Later in life, it may come in the form of contributing to child care and household duties, volunteering in the community, taking care of animals or seeing grandkids graduate and get married. It can be a hobby, a passion or work.

If you go

FREE “The Blue Zones” book club discussion
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18
Where: Off the Beaten Path, 68 Ninth St.

FREE open house with book spokesman Tony Buettner
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21
Where: Casey’s Pond, 2855 Owl Hoot Trail

The Longevity Project panel and Buettner keynote
When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21
Where: Allbright Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College, 1275 Crawford Ave.
Tickets: $25 at

Brought to you by Casey’s Pond

But research shows having that meaning, that reason to get out of bed each day, can have an instrumental impact on mental and physical health.

At 96, Annabeth Light Lockhart begins each day with a 6 a.m. trip to the pool at Old Town Hot Springs in downtown Steamboat Springs. While she may not be swimming laps anymore, movement in the water gets her going for the day and makes her feel good.

In addition, Lockhart still finds joy in quilting. Her most recent quilt, patterned in soft shades of blue and small flowers, won the grand champion prize at the 2018 Routt County Fair.

When she was 83, she published a book, and she currently has another in the works.

Lockhart goes out to lunch several times a week with friends and family and holds a church service in her living room every Sunday. She continues to volunteer at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Tread of Pioneers Museum and stays politically engaged.

“It’s important to know what’s going on in your community and be a part of it,” she said. “Everybody just gives a little. Instead of just take, take, take.”

Lockhart was born in Steamboat in 1922, “one of Doc Willett’s babies.” Her grandfather founded F.M. Light & Sons, a business that remains in her family 113 years later.

“It isn’t easy to keep a business going for 100 years,” she said. “It takes a lot of hard work.”

In addition to raising her two children, Lockhart worked in that store and another one run by her uncle Olin.

She also worked for the U.S. Forest Service and was always an active supporter of 4-H.

Annabeth Lockhart smiles while talking about her family’s legacy in Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Navigating life’s transitions

Richard Leider, author of “The Power of Purpose,” defines purpose as a summation of gifts, passions and values.

“Purpose is always outside of yourself and larger than yourself,” Leider said.

As the Blue Zone Project works to replicate pockets of longevity across the U.S., one component is “purpose workshops,” which guide participants to “discover or re-discover your gifts and talents, navigate through life’s transitions and improve your well-being by living your purpose.”

Exercises include performing an “internal inventory,” in which participants write down their ideals and principles, as well as personal strengths and abilities. They are then instructed to think of ways to “put those skills into action.”

Lockhart has always found her passions and purpose in and around Steamboat.

Her family has remained at the center of her life.

“They will always love you no matter what,” Lockhart said. “You can talk things over with them and make decisions together.”

When she and her husband, Lloyd, sold F.M. Light & Sons to their children, they travelled the world. And while she loved traveling, she said she never found any place that measured up to Steamboat.

“I don’t want to live anywhere else,” Lockhart said.

Retirement as life’s ‘2nd act’

According to Blue Zone pioneer Dan Buettner, the two most dangerous years of life are the year you are born and the year you retire.

“Retirement is not just stopping work,” said gerontologist Liz Handing. “It’s what happens to your daily habits and engagement with others.”

Handing grew up in Steamboat, received her Ph.D. in aging studies and now works at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“But retirement can also be seen as a second act in life — a chance to follow your passions and the opportunity to do something that, before, you don’t have time to do,” Handing added.

The Yampa Valley is home to many seniors who work and retirees who say they don’t know how they ever found time to work.

The close-knit communities keep people involved and giving back, and the valley is culturally and environmentally rich with countless opportunities to pursue passions or try new activities. Its roots in ranching implant a strong work ethic among many who have called Routt County home for all or most of their lives.

When Dr. Richard Berkley, 77, sold his practice in Connecticut and moved to Steamboat 17 years ago to retire, he was too restless for retirement. He remedied that by taking a part-time position with Mind Springs Health.

Berkley’s field of expertise is psychopharmacology — the study of the use of medications in treating mental disorders.

“I spent 50 years developing skills, and I’m probably better now than I ever was,” Berkley said. “And it’s a privilege. It’s phenomenal work, and I enjoy it immensely.”

He said he finds reward developing relationships with patients and seeing positive outcomes.

Berkley also stays busy cycling and building on his skills as an amateur photographer. His “basic” road bike ride is about 50 miles.

“Today, I’ll do 70,” he said.

He tackles several rides every year that cover over 100 miles. In addition to keeping him physically active, biking has also been healing. When Berkley was diagnosed with lymphoma, he biked throughout his treatment, and he believes it had a huge impact on his recovery.

David Joe Zehner, 79, spends his “retirement” building foundations, grading roads and fixing pipes around his Hahns Peak neighborhood.

David Joe Zehner, 79, spent his life as a wheat farmer, raising cattle, working at the coal mine and running his own construction company. Born in Hayden in 1939, Zehner now lives in Hahns Peak Village, where he spends his retirement helping neighbors grading roads, fixing sewer systems and splitting firewood.

“I enjoy it,” Zehner said. “I’ve always been a busy person. I get bored if I don’t do something. If you quit working, you get old awful fast.”

Hard work throughout his life has kept him in shape physically, and he said he enjoys the people he’s met working on various projects in Hahns Peak.

Zehner has been married for 59 years, and his family remains close. His sons now own the ranch in Hayden that has been in the family for over 100 years. Zehner also enjoys four-wheeling, snowmobiling, hiking, camping and fishing, and he walks with friends.

“I will always keep busy,” he said. “It keeps a guy alive.”

On ranches, there is no such thing as retirement.

Sam Dilley, 79, has been president of the Egeria Park Roping Club since 1998 and was instrumental in the rebuilding of the arena outside Toponas. Dilley still rides and ropes every week. (Courtesy photo)

In South Routt, Sam Dilley, 79, does all the irrigating and haying on about 30 of his 55 acres.

“It’s just enough land to keep me out of trouble,” Dilley said.

After a 28-year firefighting career, Dilley retired as lieutenant on the Aurora Fire Department, where he received numerous awards for his service. He was ready to get out of the city, so he bought a piece of land near Phippsburg in 1984.

“I moved up here for the hunting and fishing, but I got so busy,” he said. “I work all summer to get ready for the winter.”

When he does find time, he still hunts elks and fishes, is an avid reader and spends a lot of time roping with his daughter. Dilley has been president of the Egeria Park Roping Club near Toponas since 1998 and orchestrated its rebuilding. He sees his three daughters, seven grandkids and three great-grandkids as much as he can.

Heading out to rake the last cutting of hay for the season, Dave “Swede” Nelson, 76, has been ranching in South Routt his entire life. (Courtesy photo)

Born on a ranch in Phippsburg in 1942, Dave “Swede” Nelson, 76, still spends summers fixing fences and cutting hay.

“I like it — being outdoors, making the grass grow, raising cattle,” he said. “I take pride in it.”

When he travelled, Nelson was always happiest to return home, where his daughters and grandkids live nearby. While he’s worked in different careers throughout his life, he’s always spent time ranching, whether as a kid on his family’s ranch or today in hayfields outside Yampa.

“You gotta stay active,” Nelson said. “You gotta keep doing something.”

Volunteering good for your health

Studies have shown volunteering has longevity and health benefits like lowering blood pressure and rates of cancer and heart disease as well as mental health benefits, including warding off depression and loneliness.

Pat Thomas, 76, spent her career in education.

“My favorite human beings in the world are 4 and 5,” she said. “They are so genuine and spontaneous. And they say what they think.”

Once a week, Thomas spends her mornings as a “kiddie cuddler” at UCHealth GrandKids Child Care Center in Steamboat Springs, and she knows the importance of interaction and human touch.

Seventy-six-year-old volunteer Pat Thomas holds 6-month old Berkley Oamek at the UCHealth GrandKids Child Care Center. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“Laughing and singing and playing together are so important,” Thomas said, comforting an overly tired 6-month-old on her lap. “I think little people need lots of loving adults to teach them love, trust and laughter.”

Thomas is a much-needed part of the volunteer team.

“It’s my way to get a kid fix,” she said. “I just have to have little people in my life. I just love them.”

As to precisely how a sense of purpose can add years onto life, there is an ever-expanding body of research.

Numerous studies have shown that seniors, who set goals, find hope in each day or that sense of purpose, wherever it may be, are more likely to live longer and less likely to develop dementia, disabilities and heart attacks or strokes.

Handing’s research focuses on cognitive aging and risk factors for dementia.

Genetics account for about 20 to 30 percent as a risk factor for dementia, she said. Age followed by smoking, diabetes and hypertension are also strong risk factors.

But staying mentally active is part of the combination, Handing said. And it can reduce decline after a diagnosis.

The brain is like any muscle, and “the more you use it, and use it in different ways, the better,” Handing said.

There are small things you can do in daily life to challenge your brain, she suggested, like taking a new route home or memorizing a grocery list. She said it is important to make an effort to engage the mind analytically and creatively and do different and new things.

Research also links a sense of purpose to less stress, lower cortisol output, which plays a role in brain function and immune regulation, and increased motivation for self-care.

“If you want to think you’re old, you’re gonna be old,” Dilley said. “To stay young, you’ve got to think you’re young. I always look forward to the next day and see what I can accomplish.”

Part 4 in The Longevity Project series will appear in the Sept. 30 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.

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