CLEARWATER, Fla. — The oldest living American isn’t in a nursing home or a hospital or an assisted living facility. She lives in her own condominium just off bustling U.S. 19 in Clearwater, Fla.
Elsie Thompson, 113 years old and counting, became the oldest American when the previous title holder, Mamie Rearden of South Carolina, died in January at the age of 114.
Thompson, who has lived in the same Clearwater condo since 1971, is now the fifth-oldest person in the world.
Born on April 5, 1899, during the William McKinley administration, she is one of the few human beings left on Earth who drew breath during the 19th century. There are only 14 of those people left – only six are Americans.
The Tampa Bay Times visited with Thompson on her 111th, 112th and 113th birthdays, but the Times wasn’t able to interview her on this occasion because her family is concerned about the severe flu season. Last month, the two oldest Americans then living – Besse Cooper, 116, and Dina Manfredini, 115 – both died of infections.
As a precaution, Thompson is taking no visitors other than the three caregivers who watch after her around the clock.
“We’re just being very careful about her coming into contact with anybody,” said her son George Thompson, 72, of Thousand Oaks.
However, we can describe what Thompson’s life is like.
The widow of a Pennsylvania lawmaker spends her days puttering around her beloved home in the Imperial Cove condominiums. Every morning, one of her caregivers helps her get dressed and makes her breakfast – typically oatmeal, a banana or an egg.
“You’ll say, ‘Elsie, honey, you wanna get up?’ And she’ll say, ‘You betcha.’ Sometimes she’ll talk and talk,” said Susie Harper, her caregiver for more than 13 years. “Sometimes when she’s tired, she doesn’t want to say anything. But she has a happy and uplifting spirit about her.”
The oldest living American likes to drink coffee. With a walker, she can get around on her own. Although her hearing isn’t what it used to be, she listens to music on her stereo. She hums the hymns that she played on the church piano when she was a little girl.
Thompson grew up in Pittsburgh and got married in 1921. While her husband, Ron Thompson, served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, she ran his business, which refined used gold. After he served 22 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the couple retired to Clearwater.
When her husband died in 1986, her son asked her to move to California so they would be closer. But she wanted to stay where her friends and home were. Until age 102, she made an annual trip to the West Coast to spend Christmas with her son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now family visits her instead.
“It has continued to work because she’s well taken care of,” her son said. “It’s a different world here, and she’s so familiar with everything there. You should see how she gets around her apartment. She knows exactly where everything is.”
What is Elsie Thompson’s secret? Researchers say it’s mostly in the genes.
“Biology is the most important factor,” said Robert Young of the Gerontology Research Group, a global network of experts who track “supercentenarians” – people who are 110 or older.
It’s a tough group to join. Although nearly 7 people per 1,000 live to be 100, only one in 4 million cracks the 110-year barrier. Almost all are women, according to Dr. Stephen Coles, a UCLA gerontologist who co-founded the research group.
People of Thompson’s age are even rarer.
“It’s one thing to be 110. It’s another thing to be 113,” Young said. “If 110 is like being in the major leagues, 113 is like the all-star team.”
Although average human life expectancy has steadily risen (currently 80 for American women and 75 for American men), the upper limits of human longevity haven’t really budged. Only eight people in the world have ever seen their 116th birthdays. Only four have lived to be 117. The oldest human ever, Jeanne Calment of France, made it to 122. The oldest person in the world currently is Jiroemon Kimura, a 115-year-old man.
Young says the longest-living people have the right genetic makeup, but they also live moderate lifestyles. They don’t smoke, don’t overeat, are socially engaged, keep an even keel, and get a good night’s sleep.
“You can practice all you want, but it’s not going to make you play basketball like Michael Jordan. But if Michael Jordan hadn’t practiced, he wouldn’t have been a great player,” Young said.
“If you have good genes, you still have to make the most of them.”