ST. PETERSBURG — Centenarians often have terrific genes that keep their minds vital right to the end, though longevity can be a mixed blessing.
Dorothy Carlson, 104, is nearly blind, nearly deaf and bed-ridden since pneumonia laid her low last spring. But she still recites all 50 state capitals before falling asleep, tracks her finances by phone and worries about the U.S. trade deficit with China.
"The brain is a muscle,'' she says. "It has to be exercised.''
Carlson's problem is stimulation. Her friends and family have all died. She lives in Westminster Palms, a top-rated nursing home near North Shore Pool in St. Petersburg. The care is excellent and the people nice, she says. But the staff doesn't have much time to just sit and chat, to help transport her mind beyond the confines of her room.
Thank goodness for Sundays.
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Lakewood Estates resident Barb Hartwell, 71, does not fear nursing homes. Her mother lived for 17 years in nearby Westminster Suncoast until she died three years ago.
Last year, Hartwell's best friend died. A few months later, her husband entered the hospital to have a stent in his heart reopened and died unexpectedly in the recovery room.
As Christmas neared, Hartwell was heavy into mourning.
"Bill and I did everything together,'' she says. "We traveled together, we went to the store together. We washed the dishes together.''
Bill loved the holidays. He would break out the Christmas china by Thanksgiving.
Barb, a retired St. Petersburg College administrator, could celebrate with friends or with her brother and his family in Sarasota. But she wanted to break out of her mold and do something different — something where she could give of herself, something to keep the pain at bay.
She called Westminster Palms, a continuing care community that she and Bill had staked out for when they would grow old together and no longer want to maintain a home.
Did the nursing center have any women with no family who might want a Christmas visitor?
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Barb Hartwell pulls a chair up to Dorothy Carlson's bed, unfolds the St. Petersburg Times and begins to read the front page: President Barack Obama's Asia tour is not yielding the trade agreements he had sought.
Carlson leans in for five or six paragraphs, eyes closed, head nodding, until she's heard enough.
"You've got to get America working for less money to compete with other countries,'' she says. "We can't be selling a product if we spend a lot of money on salaries and bonuses.''
A former bookkeeper, Carlson is a stickler for facts and figures. Queen Elizabeth's coronation was in 1953. The earthquake destroyed San Francisco in 1906, the year before her birth. And woe be to the Westminster pharmacy if charges don't add up to the last penny.
The vinegar and starch that still course through Carlson's veins was exactly the balm Barb Hartwell needed. What started as a Christmas visit last year has blossomed into a full-fledged friendship.
Hartwell comes every Sunday for about three hours. She will spend a little time with two other Westminster residents she met last Christmas. They are sweet, admirable and appreciative, but both are deep into Alzheimer's, so the relationship is more of a one-way street.
Carlson is all give and take. Smile lines flank her eyes. When something tickles her fancy — often her own jokes — her upper body quakes with laughter.
They talk about politics and books. They gossip about Britain's royal family and quiz each other on state capitals, with Hartwell keeping a cheat sheet handy.
Carlson spins out tales of the Depression, her failed attempt at chicken farming and her beloved pig Oinky. She chides Hartwell for having a Ph.D. in business education without knowing more about stock market mechanics.
They touch hands and kiss goodbye.
Hartwell says she still cries for her mother every night, but does not view Carlson as a substitute. Hartwell played the daughter-caregiver role when her mother was in a nursing home, grooming her mother's hair and running interference with doctors.
"That's not what I want with Dorothy,'' she says. "I want to be friends.''
At their very first encounter, Carlson was already advising Hartwell on how to rebound from the death of a husband.
"Dorothy leaves me in her dust,'' Hartwell says.
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Westminster tries to give residents personalized attention, administrator Jeff Stern says, but by necessity, care mainly focuses on physical needs.
"To have someone come in and share time, have conversation and engage residents in other activities ... I don't think you can measure it in terms of how important it is.''
Dorothy Carlson says Hartwell's visits help keep her going.
"I'm very sorry I won't live another 10 years and see what's going to happen to the country,'' she says.
"I worry a lot about the China situation and Germany getting strong again. We have used up our resources. We only producing 3 percent of the oil we use. And that's not good.''
Pondering the holidays and their one-year anniversary together, Hartwell talks of how thankful she is for Carlson.
Her life was already full with friends, family, exercise classes, a house to run, an aging dog and cat, Hartwell says.
But this is different.
"You have somebody who needs you and you need them.''
She'll be there every Sunday.