(Host) The oldest person in the United States is 114, and she also happens to be the oldest person in the world. The 2000 census showed 100 people over the age of 100 in Vermont, though new numbers will be out in May. While there’s no list of oldest people in the state, if there were, Mary Bonamo of New Haven might be near the top. As VPR’s Melody Bodette reports, Bonamo turned 107 in the past month.
(Bodette) Sue Perna pushes her aunt Mary’s wheelchair in front of the fireplace and adjusts her blankets.
(Perna) "Are you feeling OK today?" She’s really, really deaf…It’s really hard. I have to kind of shout in her ear. It’s kind of embarrassing. Aunt Mary started living with us when she was 98, When she came to live with me, all my friends were saying, ‘Oh, it’s so nice of you to take her in.’ … ‘Oh, I’m not that nice because she’s 98. It’s not going to be for very long.’… (laughs) I’m sure, and here we are nine years later, so …"
(Bodette) Mary spent most of her life in New Jersey, working for the phone company at a time when most women didn’t have a career. She married but never had children. Instead, she lavished attention on Sue, her favorite niece, who lived nearby, and took care of the family’s big Victorian house.
(Perna) "We always had Christmas in that house, Mary hosted it for the whole family because she lived in my grandparents’ house. She would cook for 50 60 people, two kitchens. She was high energy, high power in her day."
(Bodette) Mary’s mother lived to be 100. Her father was 104. It was after Mary retired to Florida and her husband died at age 97, that Sue started to notice some problems, including phone calls in the middle of the night. So Sue brought Mary to Vermont.
(Perna) When she first came to live with me, she was very physically active…she’d run upstairs, stuff like that. She’d jump up on a stool to put dishes on top.
How old was she?
(Perna) She had an accident, she fell and broke her hip and had hip replacement surgery at 102. the surgeon said she was the oldest person he’d operated on. Since then I’ve restricted her walking, because it’s not too healthy for her. She can go from a wheel chair to her bed.
(Bodette) Mary’s days are simple, sitting by the fire, watching movies. She’s thin, but otherwise healthy, according to Sue.
(Perna) "Do I think she’ll make it to 110? I would not doubt it. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to foresee at this point what actually would do her in."
(Bodette) But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy caring for an older relative. Planning for care takers and dealing with Medicare has been stressful:
(Perna) "Sometimes, yeah, it’s been hard to juggle the whole thing sometimes. It’s a little harder now, because I’m at the point in my life where I think I should have a little more freedom than I do, and that’s the sandwich generation thing. You get to the point where your kids are grown up and you’ve done that child raising thing, but then you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, but I still get up at 2 a.m. a couple nights a week. I still have to find a sitter if I want to go out to the movies.’"
(Bodette) Still Sue says it’s a joy to spend time with her aunt, and she wouldn’t consider sending her to live elsewhere. It’s just not how it’s done in their family.
(Perna) "I grew up with my grandmother living either at our house, or with Mary. I would want to stay at home if someone like me wanted to take care of me, oh absolutely…. It’s the best possible life."
(Bodette) For VPR News, I’m Melody Bodette in New Haven.
(Perna) (Mary) "Is it nice to go out?"
(Perna) "It’s a beautiful fire…dogs barking, we’ll stay right here by the fire today."….(door closes)