Journalist and author Kerstin Schweighöfer became fascinated with centenarians at an early age. In the Bodensee area, where she grew up, she heard about a woman rumoured to be over a century old. In fact, the woman was in her late nineties, but this not end Ms Schweighöfer’s fascination with centenarians.
Ms Schweighöfer’s fascination resulted in her most recent book “100 Jahre Leben“. Its subject is not just centenarians. What Ms Schweighöfer wanted to find out is, if people who live to be a hundred or more years old, share a certain attitude, outlook, characteristics, values to cope with life.
She first tried to find research candidates by asking around among colleagues, friends, family. For there are more centenarians these days, than about a century or more ago. Ms Schweighöfer did not restrict herself to her own network. She used the internet to find people in their late nineties or older, all over Europe. Those who were willing, she interviewed.
Though all her interviewees had led interesting lives and wonderful stories, Ms Schweighöfer decided to restrict her group to those who were at least a century old. From among these, she selected twelve to illustrate the set of values she had discovered, using their life stories and the interviews.
Ms Schweighöfer explained this in the interview she gave. Of course, those present were interested in what lessons could be learned from centenarians. Had Ms Schweighöfer discovered what really mattered in life?
She had found seven or eight core beliefs or values. She illustrated these by reading excerpts from her book. This ensured her public was introduced to the voices, lives, ideas and attitudes of several of the twelve people from the book. For Ms Schweighöfer based it on her interviews.
All twelve people were born before the First World War. Regardless of where in Europe they were born and grew up, their world differed greatly from ours. From the excerpts read, it was already clear how much we take for granted.
When they grew up, most men and women had no vote. Most children were lucky, if they finished primary school. Many had to work to help their family survive. A woman pursuing an academic career was practically unheard of. All societies were class-based. The choice of a marriage partner was based on financial and economic grounds and not necessarily love. Choice of a partner was commonly restricted by class, religion, material possessions and divorce did not exist. Wife battering and sexual abuse did exist. As for pension schemes, child support, health insurances: life was short and brutal.
Populations were still decimated by epidemics. The first antibiotic was discovered in 1928, but became only used and widely available during the Second World War. What about cars, aeroplanes, television, trips to the moon, a fridge, dishwasher, washing machine, camera, laptop, smart phones – selfies?
So what are the lessons and advice of the interviewees and the things which really matter in life? Of course, glitter and gold, power and possessions are not on the list. Nor are negative emotions like hatred, bitterness, jealousy, and all the rest. Surprisingly – or not – sex and love were considered to be grossly overrated and too idealised these days.
The list does includes self-respect and self-esteem, a zest for life regardless of its ups and downs, a certain inquisitiveness, friendship, autonomy or freedom to pursue the life one wants to lead, and much more.
For the complete list, read the book, for it also goes into certain qualifications or explanations. Moreover, this book is not just interesting because of the fascinating stories told by real people. It offers a beautiful mix of history, social history, moving personal stories and of course, wisdom and insights.
No criticism? Well, there is the strict age limit. This means a great many interviews with people not one hundred years old while the book was being written, were left out. Furthermore, the life stories it contains may not exactly be average ones.
All interviewees are or were spruce and sprightly. Obviously, none suffered from Alzheimer or Dementia. They are or were all still fairly healthy and able to lead reasonably independent lives. From experiences and stories members of the public shared, it is clear: many debilitating diseases and diseases like Alzheimer or Dementia, ensure not everybody will be able to live to be a hundred, reach a rich and rewarding old age, or manage to grow old gracefully and content.
“100 Jahre Leben. Welche Werte wirklich zählen“, Kerstin Schweighöfer, Hoffmann und Campe, 368 pp, about 20 Euro. Unfortunately, the book is currently only available in German.