By Michael VitezSarah Knauss is 118 years old.
She is the world’s oldest person and lives in an Allentown nursing home. Her daughter, Kitty Sullivan, turned 95 Tuesday. She just gave away herOldsmobile and moved into a retirement community across the street from hermother. The daughter says she’s having a hard time adjusting to living around somany old people. “I feel like an inmate,” she said. Sarah’s grandson, Robert Butz, 73, lives near Reading.
He has collected Social Security for a decade. His mother has collected Social Security for 30 years, his grandmother for 53 years. “It goes on and on like a brook,” said Kitty Sullivan. “They say one day it will be common. “More than 1,500 of the world’s leading aging experts are gathering in Philadelphia this weekend forthe annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.
Virtually every issue on the conference agenda — Social Security, longevity, caregiving, long-termcare, quality of life, women and aging — is brought sharply into focus when looking at the lives ofSarah Knauss and her family. Tom Perls, a Harvard University geriatrician and expert on people who live to 100, will visit SarahKnauss on Sunday. Sarah lives at the Phoebe Home in Allentown, where she is treated as a national treasure. She canstill talk, though her voice is soft and frail and seems as if it takes all of her 118 years to reach yourears. She is gracious, and constantly thanks the nursing staff for putting on her sweater or bathingher or pulling up her covers. Usually she says, “ooooooooohhhh,” which the staff says is Sarahshorthand for “Oooooohhhhh thank you.
“”I’ve worked here for 14 years and she’s the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” said Carol Smith, anursing assistant. “I think she should live to 200. “So many things about Sarah Knauss are surprising. The oldest woman in the world can still blush. When Emmanual Njamfon, a nursing assistant, walked into the cafeteria Tuesday and said loudlyinto her ear, “You are beautiful, Sarah” (she had just had her hair done), she turned her head awaylike a school girl, smiling broadly, utterly pleased. The oldest person in the world can still shop.
After lunch, a staffer wheeled Sarah down to a holiday craft fair near the lobby. The staffer showedSarah two needlepoint poinsettia pins, and Sarah asked, “How much are they?” ($1. She boughtone. )The oldest person eats primarily sweets. At lunch Tuesday, Sarah rejected a nursing assistant’seffort to spoon her mashed potatoes and picked up her own spoon and went directly for the dish ofvanilla ice cream.
She emptied it — albeit extremely slowly. Then wiped her chin, like a lady. Then moved onto the yogurt and the shoofly pie with more ice cream. She never touched the chicken or potatoes or cooked carrots. “She loves chocolate turtles,” Kitty said.
“I put three on the little table in front of her now and withinhalf an hour they’re gone. Anybody else would be dead. Her doctor says leave her alone. “Sarah is about 5 feet tall, 90 pounds.
She gets her shoulder-length hair washed and set each week. (Curls on the top, french wave in the back. ) Her hair has all but stopped growing. The ladies in thesalon just trim the dried-out tips every six months.
The world’s oldest woman still sits tall and graceful in her wheelchair. Her family believes she has noaches and pains. The nursing home staff says she must have them, but she never complains. Sarahtakes only one medicine a day, a heart drug. She is anemic, and last August went to a hospital for ablood transfusion.
Her family has said that no medical procedures should be taken to extend herlife. “We don’t believe in that,” says her daughter. Sarah Knauss is the oldest of six living generations. She is first. Kitty, second; Robert Butz, third. Next comes Kathy Jacoby.
She’s Bob Butz’s daughter and the fourthgeneration. Jacoby, 49, is a great-granddaughter and a grandmother. Her daughter is 27, and her grandson, 3. Experts in longevity say that soon in America, five-generation families will be the norm. Sixgenerations will not be uncommon. Jacoby visits her great-grandmother Sarah every month.
But Sarah doesn’t recognize Jacoby anymore, even though she lived with her from age 98 to 104 –babysitting Jacoby’s son and daughter, her great-great-grandchildren. Jacoby can’t relax visiting her great-grandmother because she’s thinking she could be visiting hergrandmother or her own mother and father or her daughter or her grandson, Bradley Patton, 3, ofWest Chester. Now think about little Bradley. How does he keep all his grandmothers straight?Sarah Knauss is Great Nana. Kitty Sullivan is GiGi, for Great, Great. Lucy Butz, Bob’s wife and Bradley’s great-grandmother, is Nana.
Charlotte Patton, his paternal grandmother, is Mom Mom. Kathy Jacoby, his maternal grandmother, is simply Kathy. “There weren’t any names left for me,” explained Jacoby. Sarah Clark was born Sept. 24, 1880, when Rutherford B.
Hayes was president. The nation had38 states and 53 million people. She married Abraham Lincoln Knauss, who became recorder of deeds for Lehigh County. Theywere married for more than 60 years. He died at age 86 in 1965.
Abraham Lincoln Knauss did something extremely rare for his day: He chose a slightly smallerpension, but one that would continue for his wife even after his death. To this day, Sarah receivesabout $100 a month from Lehigh County, though that money, like her Social Security, goes directlyto the nursing home to pay for her care. Sarah Knauss, like millions of Americans, has outlived all her assets. She has no savings and issupported by Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Under discussion this weekend at the aging conference is how the nation will pay for long-term careof an exploding population of very old people. Will individuals save enough themselves to supporttheir much-longer life spans — especially women, who tend to live longer than men?Another big topic will be the fate of Social Security, particularly the question of privatization.
Should individuals be allowed to invest directly in the stock market? Or should Social Securityremain as it is, a contract between generations in which today’s workers pay for the retirement ofthe generation that came before them?Sarah Knauss is not capable of giving an opinion. Neither is her great, great, great grandson, Bradley, age 3. But the four generations in between all have an opinion. Kitty Sullivan, 95: “I believe in Social Security.
I do not believe in privatizing it. Definitely not. Ihave faith in the United States government to take care of me. Putting it in the stock market isrisky. “Robert Butz, 73: “I am not for large government in any way, shape or form. I think that SocialSecurity, if individuals were allowed to do their own investing, they’d probably come up with a lotmore in a shorter length of time than what the government is producing.
I believe that there shouldbe a minimum that has to be earned or that privilege of self-investing can be taken away. I think 50percent you run your own way. And 50 percent has to stay in the traditional system we have. “Kathy Jacoby, 49: “I’ve kind of been preparing myself that it might not be there when I get there. Ifit’s there, great. If not, well, I hope I’m ready.
“Kristina Patton, 27, Jacoby’s daughter and Bradley’s mother: “I haven’t really thought about it, thatfar in advance. . . . It helped my grandparents out. And it actually helps Great Nana out.
I’d like itto be around. Other than that I really haven’t thought about it. “According to the Guinness Book of Records, Sarah Knauss is the world’soldest living person withan age that can be proved. But the world record belongs to Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who died in August of 1997after living 122 years and 164 days. Kitty Sullivan, at 95, does not want to live as long as her mother.
“She’s almost totally deaf, ” Kitty said. “I sit in front of her doing needlepoint, otherwise I fall asleep. She sleeps most of the time. I’m a frustrated person and I’m sure she is, too.
She’ll say, ‘You haveon a new blouse. ‘ Or, I’ll hold up needlepoint and she’ll say, ‘That’s pretty. ‘ So I know she’s with it. But because of this awful deafness, there’s nothing to do about it. She can’t hear.
We can’tcommunicate. “Why has Sarah lived so long?Her genetic makeup is obviously programmed for longevity. Sarah’s family credits her disposition and ability to adjust and adapt. “When they told her she was the world’s oldest person last spring,” Kitty recalled, “do you knowwhat she said? ‘So what. ‘ That’s why she’s living so long.
Nothing ever fazed her. Always calm andserene all her life, whenever there was a crisis.”