INQUIRER STAFF WRITER Sarah Knauss is 118 years old. She is the world’s oldest person and lives in an Allentown nursing home. Her daughter, Kitty Sullivan, turned 95 Tuesday.
She just gave away her Oldsmobile and moved into a retirement community across the street from her mother. The daughter says she’s having a hard time adjusting to living around so many old people. “I feel like an inmate,” she said. Sarah’s grandson, Robert Butz, 73, lives near Reading. He has collected Social Security for a decade.
His mother has collected Social Security for 30 years, his grandmother for 53 years. “It goes on and on like a brook,” said Kitty Sullivan. “They say one day it will be common.” More than 1,500 of the world’s leading aging experts are gathering in Philadelphia this weekend for the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Virtually every issue on the conference agenda — Social Security, longevity, caregiving, long-term care, quality of life, women and aging — is brought sharply into focus when looking at the lives of Sarah Knauss and her family. Tom Perls, a Harvard University geriatrician and expert on people who live to 100, will visit Sarah Knauss on Sunday. Sarah lives at the Phoebe Home in Allentown, where she is treated as a national treasure.
She can still talk, though her voice is soft and frail and seems as if it takes all of her 118 years to reach your ears. She is gracious, and constantly thanks the nursing staff for putting on her sweater or bathing her or pulling up her covers. Usually she says, “ooooooooohhhh,” which the staff says is Sarah shorthand for “Oooooohhhhh thank you.” “I’ve worked here for 14 years and she’s the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” said Carol Smith, a nursing assistant. “I think she should live to 200.” So many things about Sarah Knauss are surprising. The oldest woman in the world can still blush.
When Emmanual Njamfon, a nursing assistant, walked into the cafeteria Tuesday and said loudly into her ear, “You are beautiful, Sarah” (she had just had her hair done), she turned her head away like a school girl, smiling broadly, utterly pleased. The oldest person in the world can still shop. After lunch, a staffer wheeled Sarah down to a holiday craft fair near the lobby. The staffer showed Sarah two needlepoint poinsettia pins, and Sarah asked, “How much are they?” ($1. She bought one.) The oldest person eats primarily sweets.
At lunch Tuesday, Sarah rejected a nursing assistant’s effort to spoon her mashed potatoes and picked up her own spoon and went directly for the dish of vanilla ice cream. She emptied it — albeit extremely slowly. Then wiped her chin, like a lady. Then moved onto the yogurt and the shoofly pie with more ice cream.
She never touched the chicken or potatoes or cooked carrots. “She loves chocolate turtles,” Kitty said. “I put three on the little table in front of her now and within half an hour they’re gone. Anybody else would be dead. Her doctor says leave her alone.” Sarah is about 5 feet tall, 90 pounds. She gets her shoulder-length hair washed and set each week.
(Curls on the top, french wave in the back.) Her hair has all but stopped growing. The ladies in the salon just trim the dried-out tips every six months. The world’s oldest woman still sits tall and graceful in her wheelchair. Her family believes she has no aches and pains. The nursing home staff says she must have them, but she never complains.
Sarah takes only one medicine a day, a heart drug. She is anemic, and last August went to a hospital for a blood transfusion. Her family has said that no medical procedures should be taken to extend her life. “We don’t believe in that,” says her daughter. Sarah Knauss is the oldest of six living generations.
She is first. Kitty, second; Robert Butz, third. Next comes Kathy Jacoby. She’s Bob Butz’s daughter and the fourth generation. Jacoby, 49, is a great-granddaughter and a grandmother. Her daughter is 27, and her grandson, 3.
Experts in longevity say that soon in America, five-generation families will be the norm. Six generations will not be uncommon. Jacoby visits her great-grandmother Sarah every month. But Sarah doesn’t recognize Jacoby anymore, even though she lived with her from age 98 to 104 — babysitting Jacoby’s son and daughter, her great-great-grandchildren. Jacoby can’t relax visiting her great-grandmother because she’s thinking she could be visiting her grandmother or her own mother and father or her daughter or her grandson, Bradley Patton, 3, of West Chester.
Now think about little Bradley. How does he keep all his grandmothers straight? Sarah Knauss is Great Nana. Kitty Sullivan is GiGi, for Great, Great. Lucy Butz, Bob’s wife and Bradley’s great-grandmother, is Nana. Charlotte Patton, his paternal grandmother, is Mom Mom. Kathy Jacoby, his maternal grandmother, is simply Kathy.
“There weren’t any names left for me,” explained Jacoby. Sarah Clark was born Sept. 24, 1880, when Rutherford B. Hayes was president. The nation had 38 states and 53 million people.
She married Abraham Lincoln Knauss, who became recorder of deeds for Lehigh County. They were married for more than 60 years. He died at age 86 in 1965. Abraham Lincoln Knauss did something extremely rare for his day: He chose a slightly smaller pension, but one that would continue for his wife even after his death.
To this day, Sarah receives about $100 a month from Lehigh County, though that money, like her Social Security, goes directly to the nursing home to pay for her care. Sarah Knauss, like millions of Americans, has outlived all her assets. She has no savings and is supported by Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Under discussion this weekend at the aging conference is how the nation will pay for long-term care of an exploding population of very old people. Will individuals save enough themselves to support their much-longer life spans — especially women, who tend to live longer than men? Another big topic will be the fate of Social Security, particularly the question of privatization.
Should individuals be allowed to invest directly in the stock market? Or should Social Security remain as it is, a contract between generations in which today’s workers pay for the retirement of the generation that came before them? Sarah Knauss is not capable of giving an opinion. Neither is her great, great, great grandson, Bradley, age 3. But the four generations in between all have an opinion. Kitty Sullivan, 95: “I believe in Social Security. I do not believe in privatizing it.
Definitely not. I have faith in the United States government to take care of me. Putting it in the stock market is risky.” Robert Butz, 73: “I am not for large government in any way, shape or form. I think that Social Security, if individuals were allowed to do their own investing, they’d probably come up with a lot more in a shorter length of time than what the government is producing. I believe that there should be a minimum that has to be earned or that privilege of self-investing can be taken away. I think 50 percent you run your own way.
And 50 percent has to stay in the traditional system we have.” Kathy Jacoby, 49: “I’ve kind of been preparing myself that it might not be there when I get there. If it’s there, great. If not, well, I hope I’m ready.” Kristina Patton, 27, Jacoby’s daughter and Bradley’s mother: “I haven’t really thought about it, that far in advance. . .
. It helped my grandparents out. And it actually helps Great Nana out. I’d like it to be around.
Other than that I really haven’t thought about it.” According to the Guinness Book of Records, Sarah Knauss is the world’s oldest living person with an age that can be proved. But the world record belongs to Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who died in August of 1997 after living 122 years and 164 days. Kitty Sullivan, at 95, does not want to live as long as her mother. “She’s almost totally deaf, ” Kitty said. “I sit in front of her doing needlepoint, otherwise I fall asleep. She sleeps most of the time.
I’m a frustrated person and I’m sure she is, too. She’ll say, ‘You have on a new blouse.’ Or, I’ll hold up needlepoint and she’ll say, ‘That’s pretty.’ So I know she’s with it. But because of this awful deafness, there’s nothing to do about it. She can’t hear.
We can’t communicate.” Why has Sarah lived so long? Her genetic makeup is obviously programmed for longevity. Sarah’s family credits her disposition and ability to adjust and adapt. “When they told her she was the world’s oldest person last spring,” Kitty recalled, “do you know what she said? ‘So what.’ That’s why she’s living so long. Nothing ever fazed her.
Always calm and serene all her life, whenever there was a crisis.”