Too old to scuba dive at 80? Don’t believe it. We talk to eight intrepid people who prove it’s never too late to learn something new, whether it’s dancing, making a keep-fit video – or skydiving
Friday January 12, 2007, The Guardian
The journalist: Rose Hacker, 100
Last year, at the age of 100 and after being a politician, writer, artist, sex therapist and peace activist, Hacker became a journalist. She was at the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in Tavistock Square in London when a local newspaper reporter saw her give a speech and suggested she write a regular column. Called “She’s 100 so she should know a thing or two”, it runs in the Camden New Journal, a north London newspaper, every fortnight. She has written about issues including homelessness, the wealth gap, the divisiveness of religious education, greed and property ownership. “I’ve got so much I have to say. I look at my great-granddaughter who is three years old and think, what sort of world has she been brought into? I just can’t bear it.”
Every couple of weeks, a reporter comes to her room at the retirement home in north London where she lives and types away at a laptop while Hacker talks, surrounded by books on politics and art and photographs of her family. “Then he shows me on the screen in a big font so I can read it,” she says. “It’s very exciting. I can do anything – they don’t tell me what to write.
“It has given me a new lease of life. I was dying. I had my 100th birthday and everybody gave me parties; I had a wonderful time. Then I collapsed. I was unconscious; I had everything wrong with me. Now, in my second century, I’m like a baby, I’ve started all over again. I had to learn to walk again, come out of nappies.”
It’s not often that you meet 100-year-olds, but it seems unlikely that many are as lively as Hacker. She is partially deaf and blind but she walks unaided and her mind is crammed with information. She is funny, too. She’s wearing glamorous, big silver earrings that dangle furiously when she leans forward in her chair to make a point – and she has an opinion on everything.
Hacker was born in east London to Jewish parents. Her father, an immigrant from Poland, ran a tailoring business and Hacker became one of his clothes designers. Having always been interested in politics, she joined the Labour party and got married – to Mark, an accountant (he died in 1982, after 52 years of marriage). She gave up being a designer when she had children – two sons – but later joined the Marriage Guidance Council and became one of Britain’s first sex therapists. She wrote several books, including one about sex for teenagers. “Nobody talked about sex in those days,” she says. “These days, it’s all everyone seems to talk about”.
“It would be so easy for me to sit in this chair, listen to music and do nothing,” she says. “I can understand people my age who just give up.” So why doesn’t she? “Because of the state of the world. I think it’s very important that people should listen to people like me – and we’re being totally ignored.” Does that make her angry? “Yes. But I’m furious about everything.” Not least what Hacker, a lifelong socialist, sees as the betrayal by New Labour. “I wrote to Blair and said if you go to war in Iraq, after 80 years of hard work I will resign. The same day I got a certificate that makes me an honorary lifetime member of Highgate Labour party, so I’m not sure I can.” Did she ever think the future would be this bad? “No, I thought we would have a wonderful future. We’d built a welfare state and it worked. We had a health service. We built schools. But the monsters have taken over the world.”
The keep-fit fanatic: Seona Ross, 90
Ross is 90 and has just made her first exercise video. “I enjoyed it thoroughly,” she says. “It was fun, a real challenge. I had three members of the exercise class I run working with me to show that older people can do it. I had thought about doing a video before when I was younger but never did, so when Help the Aged asked me, I agreed without even thinking about it. I hadn’t seen any [other videos] I thought were suitable for older people.” For the elderly, exercise is, she says, “absolutely essential. The main thing about the work I do with senior citizens is it is keeping them in their own homes. I’m saving the NHS and the government a hell of a lot of money. I’ve had people come to me who decide they don’t need to take all the pills they had been taking – they’re not going into care homes.”
The video and DVD, Step to the Future, contains 40 minutes of exercises for older people. “Exercise is vital in having the right attitude to life. All those endorphins are good for you. The video shows that older people can exercise and enjoy it, but we focus a lot on how to do it safely.” In her classes, Ross, a music fan, relies on good tunes to keep her members moving. What did she choose for her video? “The music was dead boring, to be honest,” she says and laughs. So what does she choose for her class? “All sorts, but very little of your modern music – as far as I’m concerned, that’s not music at all. All that repetitiveness.” She makes an exasperated noise. Ross likes Latin American music and old showtunes.
Ross, who has three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and lives in Wiltshire, decided she wanted to become an exercise instructor when she was 14 and saw a demonstration by the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in Glasgow, the institution founded by Mary Bagot Stack to introduce exercise to all women. “My parents thought I was mad and said I had to finish school.”
Just before she turned 17, she moved to London and attended Stack’s school to train instructors at a time when women were expected to be able to dance, but not do these strange stretches and jump around in shorts and vests. “We were pioneers,” says Ross. “We would do demonstrations in Hyde Park and great crowds would come. They must have thought we were mad but we were treated like pop stars.”
Now, in her 10th decade, she says it is exercise that has kept her young. “I still go out and enjoy myself and see my friends. I’m just as fit and frisky as I was when I was 70.” Step to the Future is available on DVD and video (£12) from http://www.helptheaged.org.uk/homeshopping or 0870 770 0441
“The student: Bernard Herzberg, 98
Herzberg was 81 when he did his first degree, and is now just months away from getting his MA in African economics and literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London. His final paper, an essay on the inevitability of military rule in Africa after decolonisation, was handed in four months ahead of the deadline.
“This is the second time I have written this essay,” says Herzberg, who lives in East Finchley. “The first time the lecturer did not agree with the way I wrote it, so I had to redo it.” This time the 98-year-old is confident that he will pass. But whether he does or not hardly seems to matter: his wife died last month, and studying is now a way for him to keep himself occupied. “I didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing, especially now that I am alone,” he says.
At Soas he has made many friends among his fellow students and lecturers, all of whom are a lot younger than him. “Do they treat me well? Oh, yes, very much so.”
As a Jew growing up in 1930s Germany, Herzberg was denied the chance of a university education. In his early 20s he emigrated to South Africa, where he lived for half a century before moving to London in 1985. Married with two children, he didn’t get round to university until after he had retired from the chemical industry in his early 80s. But this latest MA will join a long list of educational achievements, including another MA in refugee studies gained in 2005, and a degree in German and German literature before that.
Whatever the outcome in May, Herzberg is satisfied with his accomplishments. “Whether I get the third degree or not is immaterial,” he said. “I have lived a good life.”