Bernice Larson is celebrating her 100th birthday at Oakwood Village on Mineral Point Road.
"How do you feel?" one woman asks Larson, who is sitting in her walker, back straight and head high. "Just like I always feel," Larson says. She is not one for making a big fuss. "I prefer a back-row seat," she says.
"How do you get to be 100?" another resident asks. "Genes," she says. And perseverance. "You just take one birthday after another," she says. "And there you are."
"It's the stubborn German in her," her son-in-law Bob Howland whispers.
It's also her positive attitude and faith, says the Rev. Bruce Loewenhagen of Midvale Lutheran, where Larson has attended services for more than 50 years. "My grandma is 103 and she is still plugging away," he tells her when he stops in for some punch and birthday cake. "So who knows, right?"
Oakwood resident Ray Bayley tells Larson a joke about a cranky centenarian who is asked how his life has changed now that he is 100.
"No peer pressure," the centenarian in the joke replies.
Larson, a slight woman with sparkling blue eyes behind her glasses, laughs. What else can you do but make the best of it? She is among a growing number of Americans who are outliving the rest of us long enough to reach the century mark, and while she would be the first to tell you she is lucky, it can also be a hard journey.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census released just this past week shows that the number of people aged 100 and over doubled over the past two decades, to nearly 70,000 in 2010. (In 1950, there were just 2,300.) In Wisconsin 1,098 people (958 women and 140 men) were aged 100 or older in 2010, compared to 916 in 2000. Remarkably, 78 (64 women and 14 men) are between 105 and 109 years old.
Three are what are today called supercentenarians, age 110 or older. (Interestingly, the number of centenarians in Madison, however, has not followed suit, dropping from 30 in 2000 to 29 in 2010, a possible reflection, some public health experts might say, of widening health disparities and rapidly changing demographics here.)
At Oakwood, Larson can list a handful of fellow centenarians, including Hazel, who turned 100 in February; Val, who is 102; her friend Bernie, who will be 100 in December; and Cora, who last October was the first to be officially honored by the Madison City Council's new Centenarian Recognition Program. All these ladies are just as spry as she is, Larson says, if not more so, proof that she is not that special, she insists. "I've had just an ordinary life."
But a good one. And one that fits the profile of the centenarians whom longevity experts study. Larson has tried to stay healthy and fit, involved with friends and church, and upbeat, something her friends at the party remark on. "Since I am getting close to that age," says Milada Benca, 87, "I want to say: ‘Well done!'"
Larson has lived in Madison nearly her entire life. It was in 1991 that she moved to her one-bedroom apartment at Oakwood. Her uncle George Vogel once operated a dairy farm on the same land, which he sold to the Lutherans. The church opened a tuberculosis sanitarium on the property. It became a nursing home, where Larson's grandmother spent her old age.
On July 31, 1911, Larson was born in what was known as the old Contagious Hospital on East Washington Avenue. Except for the time her tonsils were taken out in an operation on the kitchen table at their home on Division Street, she was healthy. She and her two brothers and sister lived close enough to Lake Monona that they could run over and scrape off a patch of ice whenever they felt like skating.
They didn't have a lot of money -- her father was a sheet metal worker -- but they were happy and there was always enough to eat. She went to East High School and worked her way through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 1933 with a degree in journalism. She then worked for the publishing company that put out the Daily Cardinal. In 1937 she married Carl Larson Jr., a parking maintenance worker for the city of Madison, and they had one daughter.
After Larson retired in 1955, she and Carl went camping whenever they could. When he died in 1972, she knew, she says, that "I had to live my life for me."
So she did. She went to Europe and to Hawaii, she volunteered at church, she kept up with friends, and she walked to stay fit. Looking back, she says, she is content. "I've done some of the things I have wanted to," she says.
As for the time she has left, she wants to make the most of it. "You just sort of accept that you are on the downgrade and you know that it isn't long before you will not be here. So I want to tell my daughter what I want her to know," she says. "But I don't always remember what to tell her!"
"At the end," she says, serious again, "there is no more talking. So I have done a lot of talking."
Her daughter, Laurie, 70, calls her every day. Her grandson, a chef, lives in Hawaii. Laurie and Bob Howland can't stand the snow, so they live in Arizona most of the year and come to Wisconsin in the summer to visit Larson and Bob's mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. "She lives 50 years ago," Larson says.
Larson still doesn't miss a thing. At one point during the party she notices a woman with a broken arm struggling to fill her glass at the punch bowl across the room, and asks her daughter to go help her.
Not everything works as well as it used to, though. Her legs hurt every time she gets up with her walker to fix her own meals. She does it anyway. Recently she had a sweet potato and leftover pork roast for lunch, along with a plum and a cookie. "I don't invite people for dinner," she says, with another of her impish smiles.
She does some of her own laundry. She's had to give up sewing, because she can't see well enough to thread the needle, but she still reads and does puzzles and keeps up with the daily paper and the television news.
Ten years ago, she stopped driving. That was hard. She used to love to get in the car and head out Mineral Point Road until she got to the cornfields and open skies. "I didn't know where I was going," she says. "But I could just drive!"
Now there are days when she doesn't do much more than "just sit," she says. "I feel like I'm very lazy," she says. "But what good does it do me to bemoan the fact that I can't drive a car anymore? That I can't walk the way I want to? That's just the way life operates."
Her favorite chair is right next to a big window with an oak tree outside it, and though she can no longer see the birds as well as she used to, she is sure she has the best view around. "I'm happy with my window."
Sometimes, when she is sitting there, she is flooded with memories. "Unfortunately, like with older people, I reminisce," she says.
Why is that unfortunate? "Because living in the past is not good for anybody," she says. "It is gone."
Loss has been a part of her life since she was a young girl and her baby brother died in their mother's arms from measles. By the end of a century of living, it adds up. About 10 years ago a beloved brother, sister, and four of her very best friends at Oakwood died, one after the other. "They've never been replaced."
"I'm the one who is left," she says. "That's the hardest part. But you just keep going."