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She makes 114 look easy

Healthy and content, Gertrude Baines celebrates her birthday at L.A. nursing home.

April 07, 2008|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

In the courtyard of a low-slung convalescent hospital west of USC, Gertrude Baines was inaugurated Sunday into one of the world's most exclusive sororities.

She turned 114 years old. There was cake. Singing. Proclamations. Superlatives. Because only two other people in the world are 114. There is no one older.

A former college maid with a fondness for hats, bacon and Scripture, Baines is the third-oldest person on Earth, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which validates claims of extreme old age. A year ago she was No. 9. It's not hard to figure out what happened in the interim.

Baines, the daughter of former slaves, is the oldest person of African descent in the world, according to the group's website. The oldest person in California. The second-oldest in the United States, after Edna Parker of Indiana, who will turn 115 in two weeks. The third-oldest in the world, after Parker and Maria de Jesus of Portugal, who turned 114 in September.

So her pastor, the Rev. Warren J. Smith, wasn't much overstating the case on this bright Sunday afternoon, as a light breeze whipped a "Happy Birthday 114" balloon into Baines' face and beat her at blowing out her three stubby number-shaped candles.

"A treasure is something really special, something irreplaceable, something you wouldn't want to lose for anything," Smith told the crowd of well-wishers -- none of them related to the guest of honor. "Since this is your birthday, Mother, we want you to know how special you are. . . . We hope you have your best days ahead in your life."

Baines has outlived every known relative -- the husband she divorced decades ago, the daughter who died of typhoid at 18. Until Baines hit 107, she lived alone with the help of a caretaker. Today, home is Western Convalescent Hospital.

That's where she exercises daily in her wheelchair, watches "The Price Is Right" and -- like the 79 other validated super-centenarians who have made it to 110 or older -- serves as the canvas upon which observers paint their views of extreme longevity.

Those views do not differ all that much from what Baines thinks about how she made it this far: "Ask the Lord," she said Sunday, resplendent in a black hat with leopard trim and a bright red shawl. "I depend on him."

To Smith, the message of Baines' 114 years is simple and cautionary: "Every day with the Lord is a good day. Trust in the Lord and don't worry about anything."

Her personal physician, Dr. Charles Witt, will not posit why Baines is still alive, and his father, born the same year as his unique patient, died of pancreatic cancer a few days short of his 76th birthday. Witt is 79 and still practicing medicine, although he stopped doing major surgery a few years back.

Baines, he figures, might teach scientists something. But then again, maybe not. "They had the brain of Einstein dissected," he noted, "and I'm not sure they learned much from that. . . . I would be interested in what the pathologists think."

These days, Baines' heart is strong. Her lungs are clear. She's healthy, except for some arthritis in her knees. Her main complaint? That the bacon isn't crisp enough at breakfast.

"She's got all of her marbles," said Witt, who examined her Wednesday and celebrated with her Sunday. "She knows where she is, what her background is. . . . Maybe the Lord himself has something to do with it, to preserve this lady for as long as she's been living. It's just amazing."

Dr. Thomas T. Perls, head of the New England Supercentenarian Study at Boston University, agrees that Baines is pretty amazing. Only one person in 6 million makes it to 110, let alone living for four more years.

But Perls says Baines and the rare women and men like her could hold the key to why some people are predisposed to longevity and less susceptible to the ravaging illnesses that can come with age.

His study has enrolled more than 100 super-centenarians and is exploring the genetic and environmental factors that allow people to attain extreme old age. The hope: to discover elusive "longevity enabling genes," he said.

"Centenarians are the cream of the crop," Perls said. "Super-centenarians are the creme de la creme. . . . If any particular group out there is going to be able to help us find those genes, it will be these super-centenarians."

Baines was born in a small town south of Atlanta in 1894. Grover Cleveland was president. The American flag had 44 stars. There was no penicillin.

The world had yet to hear the first extended radio broadcast of a human voice. And it would be 34 years before Philo T. Farnsworth would unveil his first television set -- the invention that beams into room 239-A on a regular basis.

Baines on daytime television: "I watch all of them. 'The Price Is Right.' 'Jerry Springer.' All of them things. . . . I love it. All of it."

She doesn't have too many rules to live by. She never drank and never smoked. She still gets regular exercise, in the nursing home's dining room. She goes to services every Sunday.

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