She may be 114, but she’s not counting
Gertrude Baines, looking cozy wrapped in a bundle of blankets, sits in her wheelchair facing cameras and television reporters. One crouches near the floor by her cotton booties, another shoots questions from above, his microphone not far from her cinnamon-brown lips.
“How does it feel to be 114?” they ask in loud voices so she can hear them.
“What do you eat? What do you like to do? Do you have a favorite president?” Then, the most popular question, and the one Baines dislikes the most: “What’s your secret?”
“Why all these questions?” she snaps back curiously. “I want to know.” ? “Because you’re remarkable,” one reporter says.
“Because you’re No. 1,” a nurse chimes in.
Baines turns her eyes, dimmed a cloudy blue by age, toward the tiled floor, unconvinced. The supercentenarian is no stranger to attention, but she is as struck by this latest swirl of interest as people are by her age. The death of 115-year-old Maria de Jesus in Portugal on Jan. 2 made Baines the oldest person on Earth, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which validates claims of extreme old age.
As she slept the day away in her robe, unaware of her distinguished title, a frenzy started to build outside. A dozen reporters rang the Western Convalescent Hospital west of USC before 10 a.m. to request interviews. (The director was out so no one was allowed inside.) Headlines splashed Baines’ name across the globe, and Guinness World Records noted the new titleholder.
It would be a week like no other for Baines and the staff and residents of Western Convalescent. The modest facility on West Adams Boulevard has been her home since a broken hip prevented her from living alone with the help of a caretaker at the age of 107.
The interviews, the visitors and the questions became too much after four days, and Baines excused herself from the commotion.
“I just want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head,” she says to her nurse.
For a society that relishes first-place, record-breaking, one-of-a-kind feats, Baines’ title isn’t something she actually aspired to or even likes talking about much.
Hers is a record achieved simply by being.
Gerontologists are eager to study her genes. Senior citizens at the center long to be like her. “Wonderful, and with hardly any wrinkles,” says Azlee Ross, 85.
Chances are 1 in 6 million that any of them will get past 110, let alone live four years beyond that to reach Baines’ record. Next in line at the hospital is Ruth Stewart, a 101-year-old retired X-ray technician from Kansas. And next in line for the world title when Baines passes away is another American, 113-year-old Beatrice Farve of Georgia.
Her visitors and fellow elders at the center wonder what keeps Baines looking better than some senior citizens two-thirds her age.
The older people are, the more they grapple with aging, said Dr. Thomas T. Perls, head of the New England Supercentenarian Study at Boston University.
“We look at people like Gertrude and have a sense of what it could be like,” he said. “You figure they must be doing something right.”
Genetics is key, he said, adding that the longest-lived person in history is recorded as Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who lived to 122.
Tuesday, as reporters prepare to leave Baines’ room, Cynthia Thompson, her favorite caretaker, leans in to speak to her. “See how much they admire you?” she tells her.
“I hope they satisfied,” Baines says, breaking into a smile.
The next morning, an interview with a Chicago radio station is canceled because Baines would rather not talk on the phone.
A visit from CNN is also called off. And plans for a commemorative ceremony requested by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas are postponed. Baines wants her weekly routine back, starting with a mid-week 10 a.m. church service. Down the pastel pink halls of the hospital’s second floor, where residents live two per room, men and women in wheelchairs have begun to assemble in the dining hall. They sing in soft, melodic voices that rise above the piano.
Thompson slips Baines in as the group hits the chorus of an upbeat song: “I had some pains I just got over. I just got over at last.”
At the sight of their well-known neighbor, senior citizens part to let her park in her usual spot in the back of the room. Dorena Huey, 91, quickly adjusts her wheels and settles next to her. Baines, a beaming presence in cherry-red, bobs her head to the music.
The pastor’s powerful voice reverberates through the room for an hour. He speaks of being born again, of the Lord’s mercy and of being grateful for life.
“Not all of us got to wake up this morning,” he says as Baines sits motionless, looking straight ahead. “There are some people who set their alarm this morning and did not wake up.”
The service concludes, and Baines is the first to be wheeled out of the room. She disappears around the corner, just missing a somber scene down the hall where the shrouded body of a man who had just died was being wheeled toward the elevator.
A former maid who was married, divorced, and whose daughter died of typhoid at the age of 18, Baines has outlived every one of her relatives. Yet she is often the resident with the most hospital visitors. The walls and door of her room are a shrine of birthday cards, honorary certificates and letters from the mayor, the governor and president. She welcomes church volunteers and relatives of fellow senior citizens to visit her room.
First-timers, especially children, sneak up delicately as they would to a wounded bird, hoping to steal a glimpse.
“They expect to find a shriveled up old lady sleeping in her bed,” Thompson said. “But that’s not Ms. Baines.”
The lady of Room 239-A will lift her head off her black ballerina pillow and say, “Young man, what are you doing? What do you want? Come in.”
As the number of supercentenarians has increased in the last decade, they have offered different reasons for their longevity. A 115-year-old woman in Indiana recommended more education; a 112-year-old in Australia said a comfortable life with servants helped; in Nebraska, a 110-year-old always stayed busy; and in Missouri, a 110-year-old jokingly credited men and chocolate.
Baines is more frank. She has no secret. She refers people to God, saying simply, “Ask him.”
After the service, Baines is parked outside her room by a staff member to wait for Thompson, who is on a break.
For almost a decade, the cheerful assistant nurse who could be her great-great-granddaughter is the only person Baines has allowed inside her world. On Thompson’s days off, Baines refuses to get out of bed.
Thompson changes her robes, tucks her hair in one of her many hats and wheels her to lunch in the dining room. She leaves Baines to wash her face and rub a pinch of Vaseline over her cheeks, her one beauty routine. Most important, the caretaker never pries.
Baines, in return, opens up. She tells Thompson she’s not afraid to die, but she is afraid to be alone. She talks about Shellman, Ga., her hometown; about her father, an ardent Democrat believed to have been a slave; about riding to church on Sundays in a horse and buggy.
Now and then, her eyes well up as she talks about photographs and belongings left behind in storage. And when Thompson gains a few pounds, Baines seizes the chance to tease her.
“She’s a blessing,” Thompson says. “It’s an honor that she trusts me.”
Earlier this year, when a television camera crew filled her room, she joked with Thompson:
“You stick with me. I’ll take you all the way to Hollywood.”
Midweek, as reporters continue to call the hospital, Thompson returns to Baines’ room to prepare her for lunch. The two women expect things to quiet down now at the hospital. And that is just fine.
Because busy days are bound to come again. Three months from now, it will be time to celebrate her 115th birthday.
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Oldest on Earth
1. Gertrude Baines, 114, Los Angeles; born April 6, 1894
2. Beatrice Farve, 113, Georgia; April 30, 1895
3. Kama Chinen, 113, Japan; May 10, 1895
4. Mary Josephine Ray, 113, New Hampshire; May 17, 1895
5. Olivia Patricia Thomas, 113, New York; June 29, 1895
6. Neva Morris, 113, Iowa; Aug. 3, 1895
7. Chiyo Shiraishi, 113, Japan; Aug. 6, 1895
8. Tomoji Tanabe, 113, Japan; Sept. 18, 1895
9. Maggie Renfro, 113, Louisiana; Nov. 14, 1895
10. Yoshino Ide, 113, Japan; Jan. 1, 1896
Source: Inglewood-based Gerontology Research Group