The oldest person we’ve interviewed for a project will turn 100 years old in August this year. In the past year, the age of our interviewees has been creeping up. We’ve interviewed a couple of people in their 80s and a handful in their 90s. They were of varying health conditions, but I was impressed that most of them were pretty lucid, with a good memory for the important things.
It is not always easy interviewing older people, and vice versa, not easy for them to answer our questions. Especially after the 90-year mark, the hearing is usually not that great. Some interviews entail a lot of yelling which might be misinterpreted by on-lookers as elder abuse.
In a bid to confirm details from days gone by, we sometimes ask specific questions about events that happened more than 50 years ago. In response, an interviewee shook her head and laughed. “Can’t remember,” she said. “That was umpteen years ago!” It is a huge ask, considering I can barely remember what I did the day before.
Despite these issues, I like these interviews. While the seniors may not remember the name of their past teachers, or classmates, they always remember milestones in their life. Questions like how they met their spouses, or when they had their children usually spark off interesting stories and anecdotes. An octogenarian told us of how he would park his motorcycle away from his girlfriend’s home and walk to her house as her father disapproved of it. A lovely woman in her 90s told of how she was initially matchmade to a now prominent but deceased local politician, but warned by her mother that he had a bad temper. (The hook up didn’t go through).
The life stories of these seniors also reveal details of a different age. Only a few of the ladies we spoke to had jobs before they were married. Some were married even before completing their secondary education. For men, and a few women, it was often the case that they stopped school to get a job to support their family. In the past, families were typically large, and there were high expectations especially on the older children to earn a living to help support the family. Their stories highlight how much society has changed.
In several instances, we interviewed a few nonagenarians (people in their 90s) with their families. Just a couple of weeks ago, we spoke with a sweet 99-year-old lady with three generations of her family in tow. In between conversations about family, school and friends, they shared old photos and stories. It was a lovely visit which not only provided us information about our subject of study, but also gave us an experience of the warmth of their multi-generational family.
All in all, these interviews gave me a new perspective into aging. In the past, I had associated the 80s and 90s with bedridden sickness and mental deterioration but I realise that this is not necessarily so. One can be mobile, happy and healthy up to 100. Although one can’t avoid health issues, meeting these vibrant seniors gave me a lot of encouragement to live healthy and for as long as possible.