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The world's oldest person just turned 115

Posted: April 13, 2009 1:14 a.m.
Updated: April 13, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Cynthia Thompson looks in on Gertrude Baines, 115, the oldest documented person in the world, at the Western Convalescent hospital near downtown Los Angeles.

 

How often do you meet a person who is nearly seven decades older than yourself? It's probably pretty common if you happen to be under 10. But what if you are a 46-year-old like me?

The answer is once, if you're lucky.

I was lucky recently, because I got to spend some time with Gertrude Baines, who on that day was 114 years, 353 days old, and officially the world's oldest living human being.

Baines was born in rural Georgia on April 6, 1894, to parents who were former slaves. During that year, Grover Cleveland was president, Utah became the 45th state, William Kennedy Dickson received a patent for motion picture film, and Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time.

Some other notable people born that year were Norman Rockwell, Jack Benny, E.E. Cummings, Dashiell Hammett, James Thurber, Aldous Huxley, and Pola Negri. (My hero, Buster Keaton, wouldn't be born until the following year.) Baines has outlived them all, and is the last remaining person on planet Earth to have been born in 1894.

Talk about "living history!"

She married young and had a girl, but outlived both her husband and daughter. She lived for many years in Ohio, where she retired nearly 50 years ago from a job as a maid at Ohio State University. She later moved to California and took care of herself until she was 104.

For the past 10 years she has lived in the Western Convalescent Hospital near downtown Los Angeles.

Baines is in remarkable health for a woman approaching 115. Her mind is sharp, and she looks decades younger than her age, due in part to a lifelong regimen of applying Vaseline to her face every night, which has kept it wrinkle-free.

She still attends church every Sunday in the hospital, and eats crispy bacon every morning. She has a touch of arthritis, but can still stand. And in spite of having a hearing aid and glasses, she chooses to wear neither, insisting that she "hears what she wants to hear, and sees what she wants to see."

I first learned about Baines from a report issued last November when she cast her vote for Barack Obama for president. On that day, Baines, who is African-American, became the oldest person to help elect America's first African-American president.

It took several weeks to secure an appointment due to the rash of interview requests she has gotten since being declared the world's oldest person. This happened on Jan. 2, after the passing of the previous record holder, Maria de Jesus dos Santos of Portugal.

The assisted-living hospital where Baines resides is without a doubt the nicest facility of its kind I have ever visited. The premises are spotless and pleasantly decorated, the residents seem well cared for, and every member of the staff I met seemed dedicated and cheerful. This was especially true of Cynthia Thompson, who still calls her friend "Ms. Baines," despite having served as her primary caregiver for almost ten years.

"I have several people who I care for, but I spend a majority of my time with Ms. Baines," said Thompson, 45. "We spend lots of time together talking and watching TV. She loves 'The Price is Right' and Jerry Springer. All those things they talk about on Jerry Springer, she just laughs about and says that it's nothing new."

Baines and Thompson have forged a very special closeness that has bridged the seven-decade difference in their ages.

"I feel very honored and blessed to be with Ms. Baines," said Thompson, who considers her friend to be a national treasure.

"Ms. Baines was never close to anyone before Cynthia," said Linda Bell, a social services designee for the hospital. "But she knows that Cynthia is a good person, and now she doesn't trust anyone to put her to bed. And she won't get out of bed if Cynthia isn't here."

Inside the hospital where longevity is king, Baines is clearly the alpha. Her walls are decorated with cards from well-wishers, including President Obama, whose administration is the 21st of her lifetime. She is popular with her fellow residents, and has a good sense of humor, but is not afraid to let her displeasure be known if something gets on her nerves.

"She got so tired of people asking her age, that she had us make a copy of her birth certificate and stick it on the wall," said Thompson. "Now she just points to it when anyone asks."

Baines may not, in fact, be the oldest person in the world. Recently, reports came out about a woman in Kazakhstan, who may have just celebrated her 130th birthday. But, for now, she is recognized by the Gerontology Research Group as the world's oldest person because the Kazakhstani woman lacks official verification.

As it turned out, I didn't get to ask Baines any of the questions that I prepared, because she was feeling tired and spent almost our entire time together napping. And that was fine, because when you reach her age, you're allowed to set your own agenda.

Does Thompson know the secret to Baines' longevity?

"She told me once, but I'm not telling," laughed Thompson.

UPDATE: Gertrude Baines celebrated her 115th birthday on Monday, April 6, along with nearly 200 well-wishers, news reporters, and elected officials. A representative from the Guinness World Records was on-hand to officially certify Ms. Baines as the oldest person on earth. Cynthia Thompson was at her side throughout the celebration.

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