When I was 10, I thought 50 was ancient. Forty years seemed like an eternity through which I would never pass. But now that I’m just a couple of grey hairs from that particular milestone, I find myself revising my perception of age. Even 90 doesn’t seem old anymore.
My dad will turn 90 next year (I think). He has enjoyed (or suffered) a modicum of fame during his career with An Garda Siochána (Irish Police) and at one stage was reputed to know every garda in the country by name. Now, when he’s not up the garden digging potatoes, or hauling turf in from the bog, he can be found on the golf course. Fair play, I say. The man is a legend – in my corner of the world at least.
This week, I met another legend from a different world. Another nonagenarian whose life experiences are the stuff history is made of. Born in 1921, Hórváth János was the youngest member of the Hungarian parliament when he was elected in 1945. And when he left office in 2014, he was the oldest serving parliamentarian in Hungarian history.
In the years in between he trained as an economist, worked as a mechanic, and lectured in economics for years to a body of students who still visit him today. In 1944, while part of the Arrow Cross resistance, he was arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. He escaped just hours before he was scheduled to depart this world. In 1947, he was arrested again, this time by the Russians and accused of being an enemy of the people. He was sentenced to four years’ hard labour and did his time.
In 1956, he escaped a second time, to America, as a diplomat of the revolution. There, he got a PhD from Columbia, ran twice against the rooted incumbent Democrat Andrew Jacobs for a seat in the House of Representatives, and rubbed shoulders with US Presidents Bush Snr and Reagan. The man is indeed a legend ‒ a legend now back in Budapest after more than 40 years States-side ‒ hale and hearty with a twinkle in his eye that belies his years and speaks to the young man still very much alive inside.
Statistics show that we’re living longer, healthier lives. Yet falling birth rates and increased life expectancy come with the social problems of higher dependency ratios: we have fewer people able to work to support an ageing population. Many argue that were we smarter about how we’re handling the migration crisis currently underway, we might be in a position to redress this imbalance. Something certainly has to be done.
In the meantime though, I think we need to take a new look at the aged and the ageing and instead of seeing old age as something akin to a disease, perhaps we could listen to American social activist Maggie Kuhn. She had 90 years to conclude that ‘old age is not a disease – it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.’
Perhaps if we listened a little harder to what these nonagenarians have to say, we might not end up making the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps if we took the time to engage with them more, not as frail human beings approaching the end of their days but as fonts of wisdom and knowledge who could teach us a thing or three, we might make benefit from their years of experience. Perhaps if we paid more attention to how they have arrived at where they are, we might better appreciate the sanctity of life and realise that old age is indeed a privilege denied to many.
First published in the Budapest Times 25 September 2015