WHIDBEY ISLAND — Joe Lumsden calls it the “Camelot Lite” effect.
Others credit the marine air, volunteering spirit, laid-back lifestyle, low crime rate, outdoor activities and spectacular sunsets out the back door.
Whatever the reason, Island County residents live a long time.
In fact, we beat out — or come in a close second to — all other Washington counties when it comes to longevity, according to various data.
An analysis by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation found people live longest in San Juan and Island counties, at 83.7 and 81.9 years, respectively.
The same study found Island County has the highest increase in life expectancy between 1980 and 2014.
“I’m one of them,” Irene Christofferson said, referring to her age — 96 — and the phenomenon of a long life well lived on Whidbey.
“Sixty years ago, my husband and I built a cabin on Fox Spit,” she said. “At that time, we were considered summer people. Twenty-one years ago, my husband and I moved to a condo and gave the cabin to the three kids.”
The Useless Bay resident is a familiar face at Island Athletic Club with some 3,500 visits over the decades. On her birthday, Jan. 11, staff and members surprised her with 96 cupcakes.
“Good friends, good family and the Island Athletic Club. I credit my longevity to these things,” she said. “The athletic club is not just a place to exercise, it’s a social thing as well.”
Getting out and about helps as we age. In fact, some say it’s crucial.
“Isolation is a big predictor of not being healthy,” said Mary Anderson, director of Oak Harbor Senior Services. “Churches are very active in this community. If you go to church services around here, it’s all seniors.”
The Oak Harbor Senior Center has about 800 members. Some come daily for card games or chess; others participate in weekly line dancing or rousing games of pickle ball at the nearby Oak Harbor Christian School.
“It’s not as sedentary here as it is other places, it seems,” Sharon Vaughn, 73, said from the sidelines of a Wednesday pickle ball match as she waited for a court to open.
“There’s so many activities, fishing, hiking, kayaking. But you’ve got to work at it.”
Depending on where you live on Whidbey, life may sometimes resemble an AARP commercial, particularly in Langley and Coupeville where the average age surpasses Oak Harbor’s by some 20 years.
Overall, nearly one in four Island County residents is age 65 and older — 22.5 percent — compared with 14.1 percent statewide.
But not all of Whidbey’s white heads and gray beards have tied a permanent “Gone Fishing” sign on their door.
“I’m 74 and still working,” said Barry Wenaas, a staff member at Oak Harbor Senior Center. “People are working much later in life. We’re a younger age of old.”
Away from it all but not too far is how Vanca Lumsden, 74, a Freeland artist, describes the good life balance of Whidbey.
“You have a laid-back lifestyle but you aren’t so far out of touch, you stagnate,” said Lumsden, who specializes in making baskets and tables and other decor from willow branches and old wood. “You just don’t sit around and become an old lady or an old man.”
Her husband, Joe Lumsden, also 74, is a woodworker, and he has different theory. Life is so gentle and non-threatening here that the biggest threat for towns seems to be too many deer and bunnies gnawing on trees and gardens.
“We call it Camelot Lite,” he joked. “There’s no crashing waves on the beach, there’s no tall mountains to conquer, there’s no sports arenas.
“Also, I think people who live here live longer because they really want to live here. With many couples, one of them just had to be here and the other one followed. I’m the follower, but I’ve benefited.”
The senior moment for the United States occurred in the last few years when its population tilted “old” for the first time. There are now more people over age 60 than under 15.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Island County females live an average of 84.1 years. Males live 80.9 years. Both rank at the top of the charts of Washington state, according to CDC data.
“If you were to turn 65 today, there’s 15 more years of healthy, productive years ahead,” Anderson pointed out. “In 1930, when Social Security was established for age 65, the life expectancy was 62. “If you’re going to live longer, there are things you need to think about.”
Keith Higman, director of Island County Health Department, says it’s not surprising Island County’s residents are skewed older and, by some measures, healthier than other counties.
“We’re older than the state average and we’re attractive as a retirement location,” he said. “And we’re a very well-educated community.”
Better-educated people are more likely to seek medical care and adhere to medical messages, such as don’t smoke and do get regular exercise, said Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation and author of the recent study on longevity.
County-by-county life expectancy
In the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in May, life expectancy by county was calculated from 1980 to 2014. Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota — a county that includes the Pine Ridge Native American reservation — revealed the lowest life expectancy in the U.S. in 2014 at 66.8 years, comparable to countries like Sudan (67.2), India (66.9) and Iraq (67.7).
People with more money typically have health insurance and better access to health care, which explained some of the variance.
“Risk factors like obesity, lack of exercise, high blood pressure and smoking explain a large portion of the variation in lifespans, but so do socioeconomic factors like race, education and income,” explained lead author Laura Dwyer-Lindgren in a news release on the longevity study.
Whidbey Island can be viewed as a microcosm of such inequality. While many seniors are financially stable, others rely on the island’s vast free services provided by nonprofit groups that help with food, home improvement, aging in place, medicine and other needs.
Of local residents using subsidized Housing Authority vouchers to help pay rent, 29 percent are headed by a person 62 years old or older, according to federal data.
The volunteer connection
Volunteering is known to add spark to days once filled with work or raising children.
It’s kept Marta Sticher going a long, long time. At age 53, she started volunteering at the Oak Harbor Senior Center. Thirty years later, she’s still at the reception desk, answering questions, helping people fill out passport forms and picking up ringing phones.
“We have a lot of people in their 90s who come here,” Sticher said. “At 83, I’m just a young thing.”
David Young, a 70-year-old retired physician assistant, volunteers aboard the Suva, a 68-foot schooner that takes visitors out for cruises and encourages people of all ages to learn to sail.
“Pulling halyards and cranking winches aboard Suva is terrific exercise, but just a side note to the fun of sailing this beautiful classic schooner,” said the Coupeville resident.
Age 85 and older is the fastest growing age group by percentage in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
On a recent weekend in South Whidbey, that statistic lived out loud.
Ninety-five-year-old Peter Lawlor started Saturday morning playing his harmonica and concertina for customers at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters Cafe in the Woods. It’s a regular gig for the Clinton resident.
“Me and my dog, Claude, and our groupies,” he laughed, cracking a smile that could charm a goat. Lawlor is also well-known at Langley’s Soup Box Derby where he sports four-wheeled vehicles of frivolity. He plans to enter his “The Whole Enchilada” again this August.
One year, showing up in a coffin on wheels, Lawlor poked fun at his competitors who joked his days were numbered.
“I’m proud of my age. I think I’ve had a good go,” he said in his New Zealand accent. “I’ve had a healthy lifestyle, I was working outside mostly, as a fishing guide, ski instructor, house painter, newspaper columnist, all sorts of things.”
“I was a bicyclist until up to about six months ago, then I had a bit of a balance problem,” he said. “I don’t spend my time lying down. I walk the beach, I’m sort of a beachcomber. I’m in good shape. I think I will make it to 100.”
That evening, Meg Noble Peterson marked her 89th birthday at a picnic in the Talking Circle neighborhood of Langley.
After cake and ice cream, poems and juggling, she gave a zip line a whirl across the lawn.
Because this is a woman who three decades earlier set out off alone on an eight-month odyssey to see the world after her 33-year marriage had ended and her five children grown. She then penned a memoir, “Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia.”
She’s been going, going, going ever since. Her next trip is to Mongolia.
Peterson encourages people to take risks, travel off the beaten path, never lose their sense of wonder and “do what you have always wanted to but told yourself you couldn’t, you weren’t ready, it was too much trouble, or you were too old.”
And she’s been known to remind people that there’s not much difference between a rut and a grave, besides the dimensions.
“I truly believe that,” Peterson said. “You have to remember, as the Buddhists say, ‘Life is impermanence.’”