TAMPA — An hour before the guests were to arrive, before the cover singer set up his microphone and speakers, the birthday girl sat smiling in a twinkling pink tiara that matched her pink paisley print shirt and pants underneath this sign:
Happy 107th Birthday Frances!
Frances Brassey usually celebrates her centenarian birthdays with her 71-year-old son, Wayne. He visits her every week, takes her out to dinner and to get her hair done and plans her birthday parties. But this year he had to travel out of the country because of a family emergency.
So the Legacy at Highwoods Preserve, an assisted living facility for seniors in New Tampa, threw her a happy hour birthday party on Friday. All the residents were invited to celebrate.
“You’re almost old enough to be legal all over again, Frances,” said Ashley Gunter, the facility’s activity and lifestyle coordinator, as wine was poured for residents.
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Brassey was born on Oct. 4, 1912 in Harlowton, Montana. It was almost six months after the Titanic sank in April 1912.
The course of her life touches two centuries of American history. She had a great uncle involved in the Louisiana Purchase and a great-grandfather who served in the Civil War. She had been a secretary and housewife her entire life, the staff said, but has traveled extensively, visiting Asia and South and Central America.
Her room — No. 107 — is decorated with relics from China and photo albums chronicle the life she lived in California. She has a framed 1943 photo of her husband, Edward Brassey, two years after they married and four years before their son was born. The couple retired to Florida in the early 1980s, and her husband died later that decade.
Longevity runs in Frances Brassey’s genes, said Legacy community relations manager Daniela Oliva.
When she celebrated her 106th birthday last year, Brassey told guests her secret was drinking Coca-Cola every day.
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The average life expectancy of a Hillsborough County resident is 78.9 years, according to the Department of Health.
Brassey is the oldest resident at the Legacy by more than a decade. The staff believes she may be the oldest person living in Tampa.
The average life expectancy has increased by about 30 years over the past 150 years, said University of South Florida professor Kathy Black, who studies aging at the Sarasota-Manatee campus.
Life expectancies are on the rise because people are recognizing the importance of their own physical, mental and social health, she said. In Florida, older people are learning new languages, volunteering for new activities and getting better at staying engaged.
The alternative, Black said, is dangerous.
“Isolation is a serious killer today,” she said. “It’s a risk factor for mortality. It’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Facilities like the Legacy provide that sense of community older populations need, Oliva said, as their social networks dwindle.
“Living is an opportunity,” she said.
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Most days, Brassey wakes up around 7 a.m., takes part in morning stretches, watches the Hallmark Channel and Judge Mathis on TV, takes naps — and drinks Coke.
The other residents started filing into the lobby at about 3:30 p.m. for the party. There was cake and music. The singer, Ralph Espinosa, serenaded her with a slew Golden age hits from Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and Bobby Vinton as staff members danced with residents.
Some days, Brassey doesn’t really speak. Some days she does.
Some days, such as on her 107th birthday, she just has to warm up.
“Where did you come from?” she asked the singer, laughing.
“She just gets happier and happier as the days go,” Oliva said.
Black said one doesn’t have to jump out of an airplane in their 90s to prove they’re aging well.
They just have to keep enjoying themselves.
“It’s about the quality of your life,” the professor said, “not just the quantity …”