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Santa Rosa woman turns 110

A luxuriant afternoon breeze bobbled the pink birthday balloon tethered to her wheelchair as Elsie Rich, who joined one of mankind's most exclusive and revered clubs Saturday by turning 110 years old, snoozed like a babe beneath a patio umbrella.

In past epochs of her life, Elsie labored in a factory in her native Vienna, then danced and soaked up the great city's abundant cultural offerings with her late husband, Henry. The two of them fled to America to avoid Hitler in 1938 and for decades broke their backs running a chicken farm south of Santa Rosa.

Until fairly recently, Elsie was virtually unbeatable at Scrabble. She led exercise classes for seniors a generation or more younger than herself, trekked weekly to a nickel slot machine at the casino near Geyserville, lived alone in an upstairs apartment, read voraciously and wrote poetry.

Now, as she begins her 12th decade on Earth, she naps quite a lot.

"She sleeps after breakfast, and after lunch," said friend Evie Abramowitz, 92, as Elsie dozed on a finely landscaped patio at Vintage Brush Creek, a senior care complex in east Santa Rosa.

Abramowitz lives a couple of miles away but rides a bus six days a week to chat and laugh with, watch over and keep Elsie company — all day long.

"I take her up to her room a little before 6 p.m. and by 6:10 she's sleeping for the night," Abramowitz said.

When Elsie speaks, listening is a joy because of the lilt and the charming Austrian German tinge to her words. These days she no longer says much and she's quite hard of hearing, although it's clear she understands a good deal of what's said to her — and she's certainly thinking.

After Abramowitz encouraged her to say something to reporter who'd come to visit on her birthday for the past several years, she smiled and with a slight shrug said, "I don't know really what to say."

No pressure. The reporter touched the wedding ring that she'd mentioned years ago had been on her hand since May 1932.

"That's my husband's," she said.

Henry — he was Henry Reich in Austria, but he and his wife changed their surname to Rich in America — died in 1976. As the widowed Elsie thrived but grew older, then older and older, she'd say she was grateful for so much in her life, but she did wish Henry could have stayed with her longer.

The former Elsa Schiffman was born Aug. 6, 1901. She's the longest-living known person in Sonoma County and one of no more than a handful of the oldest in California.

According to Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, which studies and tracks people aged 110 and older around the world, the only two Californians are confirmed to be older than Elsie: Soledad Mexia of San Diego, who's as of Sunday is six days from turning 112, and 111-year-old Frederica Maas of La Mesa.

But L. Stephen Coles, co-founder of the research group that studies and tracks what it calls "super-centenarians" (people 110 and older), said researchers also are aware of several other Californians said to have attained that age and are in process of confirming their dates of birth.

Asked for a ballpark estimate of how many Californians are as old as Elsie or older, Coles said, "My guess would be six." That makes her part of a pretty select group in the state.

Among the 312 million Americans, Coles and his fellow researchers have confirmed just 21 have reached or exceeded age 110. Globally, members of the 110-and-older club are confirmed to number only 87 — 81 of them female, and more than a third of them Japanese.

At present, the world's oldest known person is Besse Cooper of Georgia, whose 115th birthday is Aug. 26. The American has a ways to surpass the longest-living person ever known, Jeanne Louise Calment of France, who was 122 years, 164 days old when she passed away in 1997.

As Elsie joins the super-centenarian club, she is pain-free and takes no prescription medications. Her legs are too weak for walking and by and large she's lost her long robust appetite, although she never refuses a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

The staff at Vintage Brush Creek went all out for her birthday Saturday, dressing the lobby in ribbons and preparing a special lunch and cake for Elsie. Several dozen admirers showered her with flowers, cards and kisses during a party on her favorite sundeck, which the staff dedicated in her name.

Someone observed to the guest of honor that it was a very nice day. Elsie smiled and replied, "It couldn't be nicer."

For at least since she turned 100, people repeatedly have asked her what she credits for her longevity. She's answered that she never smoked and she drank little and stayed fit. But it's hard to escape the impression that she's made it to 110 because she was made from good stock and she simply loves life and people.

Abramowitz said she has spent at least six days a week at Elsie's side for the past three years, often laughing hysterically with her, because Elsie is not just extraordinarily old but truly extraordinary — gracious, grateful, kind, peace-loving, forgiving, inquisitive, creative, funny, wise.

"She's remarkable," Abramowitz said. "She's just a loving person. She is very special. I look forward to being with her."

Sometimes when Elsie does feel like speaking, she reverts to German. Abramowitz catches a word here and there.

"I figure she must be back in Austria," she said.

That's not a bad thing. In years past, Elsie often recalled that before Hitler came to power and posed peril to Jewish people like her and Henry throughout Europe, their Vienna was lovely, vital and invigorating.

Elsie was still blinking back an after-lunch snooze when Abramowitz gazed affectionately into her eyes and asked her, "Do you know who I am?"

"You're my mother," Elsie replied.

Really, isn't there much worse in life than being 110 years old, waking from a deep, outdoors nap — in time for afternoon snack — and perceiving that the devoted friend watching over you is your mom?

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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