If there’s a secret for centenarians, they aren’t telling. At the 35th annual Governor’s Centenarians Brunch last Thursday, more than 70 Rhode Islanders over the age of 100 celebrated their milestone birthdays together, but couldn’t come to an agreement on what to thank for their shared longevity.
Romance novels, hard work and a close family all made the list of “secrets” for a long life. Gemma Litterio said she never drank or smoked, and that lifestyle keeps her healthy. Louise Silva, on the other hand, admitted to having a few vices.
“She loves to eat candy, cake, sugar and ice cream all day,” said Dorothy Silva-O’Neill, Silva’s daughter.
Silva, who lives at the Scandinavian Home in Cranston, was the oldest woman at the brunch. At 108 years old, she still loves to write, Silva-O’Neill said, and “is doing very well.”
Silva-O’Neill learned a lot from her mother, a longtime volunteer at the Cranston Senior Center, where she used to play the piano – a pastime she still enjoys. She worked in factories before marrying the late Manuel Silva, at which time she became a housewife.
“I learned not to give up, to persevere and do the best you can,” Silva-O’Neill said.
Carmela Vacca, 102, who lives at Cherry Hill Manor in Johnston, had similar advice for her own two children.
“Work hard and be nice to everybody – young or old,” she said. “I worked in mills very hard, but I made it.”
Her son, Bob Vacca, smiled at his mother and called her “a terror,” joking that she “is always beating me up, still,” to which she just smiled and shook her head.
Concetta DiBiase, 100, who lives at Cherry Hill Manor, had to work hard too, growing up in a family of 10 children. She often helped her mother tend to the house and cook for the family.
“I learned a lot,” she said, adding that her secret to longevity could be her disposition. “I’m happy.”
DiBiase's adopted son, John Laurenzo, said that his mother has been an incredible role model for their family.
“I learned that giving is a lot better than receiving and that, in the end, no matter what, it pays off,” he said.
Laurenzo doesn’t count out his mother’s tough skin, either.
“She’s got a strong constitution … and faith in God; that’s a big thing,” he said.
The other current Johnston residents who celebrated their longevity last week were Elizabeth Bolton, 100; Eda Depetrillo, 99; Antonetta DiRaimo, 99; Eva Kurdi, 100; Yvonne Morin, 101; Phyllis Prentice, 99; Celia Ragosta, 102; Katherine Scarduzio, 100; Edna Strong, 101; and Helene White, 100.
Mario Hilario from NBC 10, emcee for the event, said seeing people full of life at 100 years old is an inspiration.
“This is what makes our wonderful state so great. We have to share your great optimism for life. It is very contagious,” he said.
Madeline Bache’s enthusiasm was contagious, and got a laugh from the crowded dining room last week when she began giving Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena a back massage.
Thursday’s brunch was held at The Bridge at Cherry Hill in Johnston, and each of the centenarians was given a citation from Governor Lincoln Chafee. Combined, they represented more than 7,000 years of living history. The event coincides with Older Americans Month, which has taken place in May since 1963. The theme of the month, this year, is “Never Too Old to Play.”
According to the 2010 Census, Rhode Island is home to more than 210,000 people age 60 and older – or 19 percent of the population. With 25,000 of those individuals age 85 and older, Rhode Island has more seniors over the age of 85 than any other state in the nation.
“It’s a very, very important population for our state,” said Governor Chafee. “We want to make sure we have programs in the state that help you keep your independence.”
Catherine Taylor, director of the Division of Elderly Affairs, said that Rhode Island should be proud of its impressive centenarian population, and said it could be due, in large part, to the state’s care of seniors.
“As we all age, we have the supports in place to help us age in place,” she said, adding, “thank you for inspiring us.”
Gene Brown from the regional Administration on Aging office also attended the brunch and said that Rhode Island’s small size is an asset when it comes to senior services, because the Division of Elderly Affairs serves as a clearinghouse, so to speak, and state agencies can work together with relative ease.
“With less layers, they are better able to serve their seniors,” he said. “They provide a lot of social services for seniors, and that’s one of our major goals, is to keep seniors within the community.”