Meeting 116-Year-Old Edith Ceccarelli, the Oldest Person in America

Edith Ceccarelli, done up in pearl earrings and a silk shawl, rested in an easy chair next to her birthday cake, adorned with the number 116.

What otherwise might have been a quiet birthday gathering on a Sunday morning was instead a grand celebration of the oldest known person in America. Before a parade of a hundred vehicles decorated with balloons and garlands began arriving outside the care home where Ceccarelli lives, I joined a group of reporters and photographers who sang to her and wished her a happy birthday.

Mayor Saprina Rodriguez of Willits, the small town in Mendocino County where Ceccarelli (formerly Recagno) has lived most of her life, read a proclamation: “1908 was the year that gave us the Ford Model T. Theodore Roosevelt became president. And Edith Recagno was born — three timeless American classics.”

Read my article on Ceccarelli, including her advice for living such a long life.

Robert Young of the Gerontology Research Group, an organization based in Los Angeles that studies supercentenarians (people who reach 110), told me that Ceccarelli was the 29th person on record to turn 116. Her contemporaries, if they were still alive, would be Lyndon B. Johnson, Lucille Ball and Mother Teresa.

Edith Ceccarelli graduated from the Willits Union High School in 1927. The Historical Society of Mendocino County has a copy of her class’s yearbook with her photo at top right.Credit…Alexandra Hootnick for The New York Times

What advice does Young offer for living into your 110s? “No. 1: Be a woman.” Of the 45 oldest people now alive worldwide, he pointed out, 43 are women.

How about things within a person’s control? “Stay physically active,” he said. “Walk fast. Be a self-directed individual.”

Well into her 100s, Ceccarelli was vibrant and fit, regularly walking through town in a stylish outfit and dancing at the senior center. At age 101, she wore a fringed floppy hat and cruised down Main Street in Willits in the back of a Porsche convertible as honorary grand marshal of the town’s Fourth of July parade.

Young said that extreme longevity generally comes from a combination of lucky genes — Ceccarelli’s parents lived into their early 90s — and good habits, which also include staying social, having a daily routine and getting enough sleep. He met Ceccarelli last year when he drew her blood for a biobank that researchers hope will yield more insights into why some people live very long lives.

Many of the oldest people in the world live in Mediterranean-type climates like that of California; Young speculated that they may be easier on the body than places with harsher weather are.

Ceccarelli, who has lived in Northern California all her life, is believed to now be the second oldest person in the world; the oldest lives in Spain but was born in San Francisco in 1907.

“I guess it’s time for California to shine; it’s your day in the sun,” Young told me.

Ceccarelli now has advancing dementia, so she moves in and out of lucidity. But on the morning of the parade, she seemed happy to know we were all there to celebrate her. She tasted her carrot cake. She shared an embrace with Evelyn Persico, 84, her second cousin by marriage and one of her closest living relatives.

“She’s so beautiful — what happened to her wrinkles?” Persico, who said she had long thought of Ceccarelli as a mother figure, joked at the gathering. “I have more wrinkles than she does!”

I’ve realized that I love writing about long-lived Californians:

Los Angeles is well supplied with famous works of art and notable architecture, and TimeOut recently drew up a list of 21 museums across the city that it considers essential viewing for residents and visitors. All are either free or offer free admission on some days.

Among them are the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, whose pristine gardens are as much of a treat as the art collection, and the Hollyhock House, a Frank Lloyd Wright design from 1921 that is perched on a hill in Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz.

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