It never gets old, celebrating special birthdays.
We should know: We used that as a headline celebrating a 100th birthday in 2013.
Since then, the Times has covered countless centennial birthdays.
On March 9, Iris Serrano celebrated hers.
“I feel like a teenager,” she said. “I feel good. I eat good. I’ve got a boyfriend.”
Standing under 5 feet tall, with a crown and a sash reading, “100 & Fabulous” in gold letters, Serrano rang in her second century by salsa dancing for hours at the Hillsborough County Brandon Senior Center.
Relatives from across the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico — as well as a live band and about 100 of her closest friends — joined her.
As more people become centenarians — the term for people 100 and older — we looked back at our coverage to ask: How have we talked about older adults who reach their 10th decade? How could we be better? And what is the secret to living longer, really?
Here’s how to write a 100th birthday story, according to the Times archives.
Make sure readers know your subject is 100 “years young.”
Seriously. We do this over and over (2010, 2016, 2016 again, 2017, 2018).
I understand the temptation to hand-hold: I desperately want you to get how fiery Serrano seems at her first of several weekend birthday celebrations, how music rolls off her tongue seamlessly in a way it likely has since she was a teenager.
It feels special, and I don’t want you to miss it.
But it’s not surprising to Thomas Perls, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and a leading expert on centenarians.
“Centenarians are one of the fastest-growing populations,” said Perls, whom we quoted for another birthday story in 2004. “With all these centenarians popping up, you’re going to have to devote a whole section of the paper to 100th birthdays.”
It’s great news, Perls said: Many centenarians are relatively healthy and likely have been over the last decade.
“One hundred used to be really special,” he said. “Now you’ll probably have to tell people, ‘Call us back when you’re 105.’”
Mention important historical events that the centenarian lived through (World War II almost always makes an appearance), or things that happened in their year of birth.
The year 1923: A group of scientists won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin. Yankee Stadium opened its doors with a game against the Boston Red Sox (I’d tell you who won, but it’s rude to gloat). The Walt Disney Co. was founded. So was the Republic of Turkey.
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The life expectancy for women in the U.S. was 59.
But to Serrano, life’s most meaningful moments have been personal.
“When my first baby was born,” she said when asked about which memories stand out.
Any Zoomer can already tell you: Live awhile and you’ll endure your fair share of pain.
Live a long time, however, and you may witness the unspeakable.
Serrano has outlived her oldest son — her first baby — and one of her daughters.
“My mom should have never had to bury her children,” said her daughter Lola Serrano-Dixon, 73. “She’s a warrior woman.”
Serrano’s six remaining children — as well as a parade of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren — flew to Tampa Bay to celebrate with her.
One question, above all else, appears to be mandatory in our profiles of centenarians: What’s your secret?
“I had people who fed me well, took me to restaurants,” Frank Sorbera told us days before he turned 100 in 2018.
“Golf,” theorized Helen McDonnell Whittlesey Ireland at her birthday party in 2017.
Wenona Marbourg did what her mother told her (2015). Caesar Snyder didn’t smoke (also 2015). Cecil Godwin never lived in a house with air conditioning (2016).
Sally Weibe of Dunedin, in 2013, credited her long life, delightfully, to “good looks and modesty.”
We want a playbook. Ten Commandments of Healthy Aging. A checklist we can cross off that will guarantee us longer lives.
I’ll admit, I took the bait.
“I’ve never in my life been sick,” said Serrano when I asked why she thought she was so healthy. “I eat good. I’ve got a great family.”
People who live to 100 tend to have a few characteristics in common, according to Perls.
They’ve exercised regularly, they sleep well and they’ve avoided excessive drinking or use of other drugs.
“It speaks to this idea of, ‘The older you get, the healthier you’ve been,’” he told me in 2023 (we also quoted him saying this in 2020 and 2004).
About 25% of becoming a centenarian is owed to genes, Perls said. The rest is due to behavior.
Having a glass of wine each night — the “secret” many centenarians swear by — might not, unfortunately, directly lead to a longer life.
But it may be a marker of other things that are associated with healthy aging, Perls said, such as wealth and a robust social life.
Serrano credited her longevity to her family. Her family said the social activities at the Hillsborough County Brandon Senior Center have also been vital, particularly during the pandemic.
“Because isolation kills,” her daughter said. “It’s the services she’s gotten from the county — I’m not sure she’d be here without that.”
Gender also plays a role. The vast majority — about 85% — of centenarians are women.
From birth, Black people in the U.S. have a shorter life expectancy than white people, a disparity that experts largely believe is due to structural racism. But once they reach their mid-80s, Perls said, Black seniors are more likely to become centenarians than their white peers.
Similar trends emerge for Hispanic people — available data suggest that Hispanic women in the U.S. like Serrano are more likely to reach 100 than either Black or white older adults.
Present their hobbies like a dating profile.
“Enjoys singing and reading, and especially eating raviolis and roast beef,” for example, is what we wrote to describe Josephine Schmitt of Ruskin in 2013.
I’m mostly kidding.
Besides, Serrano already has a boyfriend. But you might as well know: She can dance to any tune. She’s confident (“Look at me, I don’t have any wrinkles!” she recently told her daughter.) If she has to, she can use Zoom to connect with others. Her family calls her a spitfire — her skin is thick and her heart open.
This audit of our coverage made we wonder: Is it condescending to list out all the things that people enjoy at 100, as if it’s rare to have a robust life at an old age? Or in a society where aging carries so much stigma, is it presenting a radical counternarrative?
Maybe that’s why we keep writing these stories.