Second oldest person in Florida, Clearwater woman turns 111

Elsie Thompson holds a birthday gift from her son. She is the only person in the bay area who was born in the 19th century.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Elsie Thompson holds a birthday gift from her son. She is the only person in the bay area who was born in the 19th century.

CLEARWATER — Out of millions of people living around Tampa Bay, there's only one who was born in the 19th century.

Elsie Thompson, the oldest person in the bay area, will mark her 111th birthday on Monday. She's one of a dwindling tribe of human beings — only about 70 on planet Earth — who were born in the 1890s.

What's the secret to her longevity?

"I love people," said Thompson, who still lives in the same Clearwater condo that she and her late husband bought 40 years ago.

She's the second oldest person in Florida, the 14th oldest American and the 45th oldest person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group, a Los Angeles agency that tracks "supercentenarians," people who are 110 or older.

Researchers say it's all in the genes.

"It's inherited," said Dr. Stephen Coles, a UCLA gerontologist who maintains a list of the world's oldest people.

"The only thing these people really have in common is long-lived relatives. Their parents and siblings lived a long time. It's a lucky role of the dice in the genes they have, and we need to find out what those genes are."

Thompson will celebrate her 111th birthday with cake and a get-together with her neighbors at Imperial Cove condominiums off U.S. 19.

The widow of a Pennsylvania lawmaker, she spends her days puttering around her condo, taking walks and naps, and welcoming friends for visits. She sings the hymns that she played on the piano in church during her childhood. She's partial to chicken, salmon, coffee and cookies.

This is all made possible by three caretakers who assist her at home.

She was born during the McKinley administration, on April 5, 1899, in Beaver Falls, Pa. She grew up in Pittsburgh.

In 1921, she married Ron Thompson, who served in the military during both World Wars. During World War II, she ran his business, which refined used gold.

After the war, her husband served 22 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The couple entertained frequently, and Mrs. Thompson said she became a "career hostess."

They moved to Florida in 1971, and her husband died in 1986. Until age 102, she made an annual trip to California to spend Christmas with her son, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Now they visit her.

She credits a positive outlook for her long life. "Isn't it pretty out?" she said Friday as the sun broke through the clouds over her condo.

Worldwide, the oldest living person at this time is 114.

Researchers studying supercentenarians say it's a difficult group to join. Although nearly 7 people per thousand live to be 100, only 1 in 4 million crack the 110-year barrier, Coles said.

And although the average human life expectancy has steadily risen over the decades (currently 80.8 for American women and 75.6 for American men), the upper limits of human longevity haven't really budged.

It's almost unheard of for someone to live past 115. So the ranks of people who were born in the 19th century are rapidly disappearing.

"Very soon, there will not be anybody left who has seen three centuries," Coles said.

Meanwhile, Elsie Thompson keeps up her positive attitude.

As she bade farewell to a visitor Friday, she said, "I'll see you again."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

FAST FACTS

World's oldest people

Oldest person: Kama Chinen of Japan, 114 years old, born May 10, 1895

Oldest American: Neva Morris of Iowa, 114, born Aug. 3, 1895

Oldest Floridian: Onezima "Onie" Ponder of Ocala, 111, born Sept. 3, 1898

Supercentenarians: There are 74 living people documented to be 110 or older.

Gender imbalance: 71 are women and 3 are men.

Source: Gerontology Research Group

Second oldest person in Florida, Clearwater woman turns 111 04/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 5:23pm]

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