Average life expectancy at birth in Spain is 82.8, according to the latest World Health Organization data, just a shade below the 83.7 years on average a Japanese newborn can expect to live. Most of the men and women I interviewed showed a zest for life and an interest in pastimes from amateur dramatics to playing the piano. Many also continued to carry out daily duties, including farm work and caring for a disabled child.
Pedro Rodriguez, 106, plays the piano every day in the living room of his flat in Asturias, northern Spain, where he lives with his wife who is nearly 20 years younger than him. Their daughters visit them often. “The nuns taught me how to play the piano as a child,” he said after giving a rendition of a Spanish waltz.
The majority of these elderly people were surrounded by family or had loved ones calling in on them daily, showing how Spain continues to be a closely-knit society, where family ties are paramount.
Francisco Nunez, 112, is the oldest person I interviewed. He lives with his octogenarian daughter in his house in Badajoz, south-western Spain. He says he doesn’t like the pensioners’ daycare centre because it’s full of old people. “He hasn’t had to leave his home. I’m single and I live here with him,” says daughter Maria Antonia Nunez, 81, as she adjusts his beret.
When questioned about their most vivid memories, many recall Spain’s 1936 to 1939 civil war, which set neighbour against neighbour and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths followed by the 36-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Pilar Fernandez, 101, suffered hunger and hardship during the war years alongside her nine brothers and sisters. To avoid history repeating itself, she limited herself to one child.
“From pure fear, I didn’t have any more,” says the sprightly woman who lives with her daughter’s family in Asturias, and tends livestock and a vegetable garden. Tips for long life ranged from a spoonful of honey a day to regular intake of gazpacho, a traditional cold Spanish soup made from tomatoes and cucumbers.
Gumersindo Cubo, 101, from Avila, puts his longevity down to a childhood spent in a house in the woods with his eight brothers and sisters, where his father was a park ranger. “It’s from inhaling the pine resin from the woods where I lived as a child,” he says, telling of how his mother would put a jar of the resin under the bed of the sick.