Making it to eleventy-one

The world’s oldest man is 111, I learned yesterday. Alexander Imich lives in New York, eats a lot of fish, doesn’t drink, and has ‘no idea’ how he is still alive.

Every time I visit my granny (who is 90, and lives in a nursing home now), I wonder at her sheer age. The volume of what she has seen and felt and experienced, compared to what I’ve done, is hard to fathom. It’s a cliché, but she has forgotten more than I will ever learn.

Even in the Irish context, she has lived through incredible times. Born just after the State was founded, she has lived through one World War, rural electrification, the Troubles, and the rise and fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland (to which her healthy output of nine children attests).

Relatively speaking, she’s a spring chicken at 90, because women live so much longer; there are 66 women older than Mr Imich.

Born in Poland in 1903, he is the same age as air travel and was still a relatively young man by the time man stepped on the moon. He was born in Poland just months after the Wright brothers took their first flight, and the year his countrywoman Marie Curie, who later invented radiotherapy, received her doctorate at the Sorbonne.

A zoologist, he moved to the US in 1951 after being interned in a Russian camp during World War Two.

He must’ve had an inkling that he was going to live a long time, because when his wife died in 1986, he moved to New York from Connecticut, where they had been living.

Do the sums; he moved to one of the world’s most lively cities at the age of 83. That’s a pretty big move when most of your compatriots are either dead or incontinent, and probably says a little about his sense of adventure.

But perhaps a change is as good as a rest. It must be very hard to live such a very long time, and on your own. Because who could be left? With no children, and given that his wife has now been dead almost 20 years, who does he have that knows him of old and remembers him as himself, not as an old man?

From a purely social point of view, it must be tough. Apart from anything else, there is absolutely nobody who will get your jokes.

He’s old enough to remember World War One. And World War Two. And all the other wars America’s been in since then, in a turbulent century during which wars got exponentially bigger and more dangerous.

That means he’s old enough to have grown disillusioned a long, long, time ago. He can remember the Great Depression, the New Deal, and has now lived through the Great Recession as well. He probably remembers politicians’ promises from a time before Ireland was even a Republic and knew before Pearse read the Proclamation over on the other edge of Europe that what politicians say is at best ambitious and at worst egregious falsification. I wonder if he votes, or if not, when he stopped. I wonder how long he was optimistic for.

Or maybe he is an optimist, and that’s what’s kept him going all these years. Perhaps it’s my viewpoint – that 111 years of war, politicians and elections would be too much for anyone – is what will stop me living that long.

Maybe he relishes every new day, makes friends as easily as he loses them, and has a sunny disposition. In a clip posted by NBC, he seems like a genial sort of chap – when asked the secret to his incredible lifespan, he takes a pretty straightforward approach, answering “I simply didn’t die earlier”. Perhaps the rest of us are just over-thinking it.

From The Herald, 8 May 2014.


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