EDITOR'S NOTE: National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner visited Gainesville in April to share his nine “Blue Zone Power Approaches” to living a longer life. This series is dedicated to those approaches and how they can be implemented in Hall County. The third power approach, “Have Purpose,” states having a sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
More than seven years ago, Fred Skey took his then-girlfriend Olivia to the Scottish island of Lindisfarne to propose marriage.
“And she said, ‘Well, I’ll marry you under one condition,’” Fred Skey said. “‘You’ve got to outlive me.’”
Ever since, he has taken his wife’s requirement to heart. And it has motivated him to live a healthy, vegan lifestyle.
“That’s been a motivation for me to really pay attention to a healthy lifestyle and to do my part to live up to that commitment,” Skey said.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Skey said he and Olivia had “terrible marriages” in their 20s and were single a long time thereafter. But the couple, who met in 2008, has now been married seven years.
Fred spent most of his life prior to meeting Olivia as a bachelor, developing some unhealthy habits.
By 2000, he had heart disease. At age 54, he needed open heart surgery.
“Single, white males are pretty high-risk,” he said. “I had a very stressful job and wasn’t looking after myself like I should have, probably.”
Skey said he always exercised, but smoked cigarettes in his youth. He quit smoking 10 years before the surgery, but chances are the damage was already done.
“I just think I had lived a single lifestyle, missing meals or making poor choices now and then,” he said. “I hadn’t looked after myself properly.”
After the surgery at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Skey participated in a study.
“The cardiologists there were doing a study on the causes of heart disease,” he said. “I did the study there for many years, through group therapy that was offered for free.
“They were trying to link anger to heart disease.”
Skey said he concluded that, though he wasn’t an angry person, he had been angry with himself for a long time.
“And that caused stress, lost opportunities and various things that had gone wrong in my life,” he said. “I think that was one of the causes. But now I’m doing great.”
A VEGAN DIET
Olivia Skey said she’s “been amazed” at what her husband has done to keep his word to her over seven years.
“Every time he’s taken some significant action — whether it be going vegan, which I didn’t believe he could really do, or walking 60 minutes six or seven days a week — he’s told me the motivation is his promise to outlive me,” Olivia said.
Fred moved to Gainesville, where he met Olivia in 2008, after his surgery. A Piedmont cardiologist recommended he see Dr. Jeffrey Marshall at the Northeast Georgia Heart Center.
“(Marshall) told me to read ‘The China Study,’” he said. “He gave it to me, and every time I picked it up I thought, ‘I’m not going to read this.’”
Finally, while his wife was in Florida visiting family, Fred picked it up and read it, cover to cover, in two days.
“It was so compelling,” he said. “This book talks about basically living a vegan lifestyle in study after study, after study. It’s not sort of baloney stuff, but lots of studies worldwide about how a vegan lifestyle is good.”
When his wife returned from Florida, Fred told her he was going to try a vegan diet for one week.
“I had, over the years, gone a few days without meat or fish,” he said. “And when I was still alive at the end of the week, I tried for two weeks. It’s been 4 1/2 years now.”
Fred said his doctor has since told him, now at age 70, he is effectively reversing his heart disease. And Olivia said she feels better and healthier at age 61 than she ever has.
Today, she eats a pescatarian diet, skipping meat but eating fish. And Fred is still a vegan, avoiding all animal by products, such as meat, dairy and eggs.
“It’s basically twigs and leaves,” he said. “I’m like any opossum out there.”
A HEALTHY LIFE
Fred and Olivia don’t just maintain a healthy diet, however. They live their lives with healthy intentions.
Fred said he practices yoga and Vipassana meditation, an ancient Indian meditation technique. They own a camper, which in the past 18 months has been to the West Coast and back twice as the couple travels and visits friends along the way. It will take them up the East Coast to Maine this fall.
“We have a family member who comes and lives here and takes care of the cats, so the house is never empty,” he said. “We like to get out and have fun, and we bring a little trailer with two kayaks and two bikes.”
The Skeys own a tandem bike and an assortment of road bikes, as he repairs bicycles out of his basement. Their camper allows them to maintain their diets while traveling, as they can cook and prepare healthy, vegan meals on the road.
Olivia said while they both enjoy cycling, Fred is an avid cycler and she is an avid swimmer.
“I like variety,” she said. “That’s kept me interested, by not doing the same thing every day. So certainly walking and hiking, Zumba and yoga, and swimming is really my passion.”
Fred said Marshall advised him to work out at least six days a week.
“He said an hour a day, six days a week,” Fred said. “He said, ‘168 hours in a week, I’m only asking for six.’”
Both retirees love to travel and hike, but their favorite thing is to have family around their table. They have no children of their own, but their home is full of high chairs and toys for their newest grandniece.
“Ever since we started dating, every Sunday night, we have open house here,” Fred said. “We have family dinner. Sometimes we read poetry, sometimes we just visit, and over the years there have been more people or less people coming. We’ve made a commitment to that, to having family here.”
Fred said living life to the fullest, together, is important to him and his wife.
“We want to live a full active life, and then go dropping off the cliff,” he said. “And, of course, I have to live one day longer.”