January 6, 2010

USA: At 107, she's slower but still quick-witted

. RICHMOND,Virginia / Richmond Times-Dispatch / News Columnists / January 6, 2010 By Bill Lohmann Willie Wells, 107, spends most of her days reading in her chair as her caregiver Jayne Christian keeps her company. Lindy Keast Rodman/Times-Despatch Her world has grown smaller as age finally seems to be catching up with Willie Alcorn Wells. She doesn't get out much anymore, she has had to give up her weekly appointment with a hairdresser and she spends much of her days relaxing in a recliner in her bedroom. Several days a week, she even has what her caregiver calls "pajama days." Then again, she did turn 107 yesterday. "You live 107 years, that's really something," Willie said the other day when Times-Dispatch photographer Lindy Keast Rodman and I dropped in for what has become our annual visit. "I've had a good time." I first met Willie in 2002 when I wrote a story about her and her twin, roommate and lifelong confidante, Nannie Wright, on the occasion of their 99th birthdays. They were so charming and readers responded so favorably to their story that I've felt obliged to provide updates each year around their birthday. Much of their appeal was they didn't act their age. They frequently went out to get their hair done or to eat lunch, and they took trips with their niece Nancy Baker, who had assumed caregiving responsibilities for the twins. Baker threw a big bash for their 100th birthdays. In 2004, just before her 102nd birthday, Nannie died, the result of complications from a head injury suffered in a fall. In 2008, Baker died. Yet Willie carries on, living in the house she shared with Nannie in Richmond's West End. She's able to stay there with the help of longtime caregiver Jayne Christian and a rotating group of nurses who work for a local service. Though she has slowed, Willie still has a quick wit. After playing a peg-board game with the goal of jumping and removing as many pegs as possible, Willie andChristian didn't remove all that many pegs. Willie Wells turned 107 on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2010. She lost her twin, Nannie Wright, five years ago. Lindy Keast Rodman/Times-Dispatch "We didn't do so hot," said Christian. "Not even warm," said Willie. She still likes buttercream coffee cake for breakfast. And she still loves her daily newspaper, holding it close to her eyes and poring over it with an uncommon intensity. And she still misses Nannie desperately. "When you're a twin, as close as you are, you really miss them," she said. No wonder. From the time they were born Jan. 5, 1903, on a farm in Ruffin, N.C., they were never apart for long. In 1923, the twins came to Richmond on a train to attend nursing school at Stuart Circle Hospital. Nannie married first, and Willie lived with her sister and brother-in-law until she married a few years later. Even during married life, Willie and Nannie, neither of whom had children, lived only a few blocks apart. As widows, they lived together for more than 25 years until Nannie's death. It's becoming less and less unusual for people to reach 100 years of age, borne out by the U.S. Census, which estimates that more than 96,000 centenarians live in the United States. The Gerontology Research Group has verified 76 living "supercentenarians" -- those 110 years of age or older -- in the world. The oldest living person is a Japanese woman who is 114. The oldest living man is Walter Breuning, 113, of Montana. The list includes 74 women, two men and no Virginians. No word on whether any of them prefer buttercream coffee cake for breakfast. Wearing a new sweater she received for Christmas, Willie sat in her recliner, within easy view of a dresser filled with photographs of her and Nannie. "She was talking about missing Nannie on Thanksgiving, and she had me bawling," said Christian. "I said, 'Willie, you've got me crying,' and she said, 'We're not crying. We're just washing our eyes.'" [rc] Bill Lohmann wlohmann@timesdispatch.com © 2010 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC