Wilma Helsabeck entered the dining area at Sunrise of Raleigh in her wheelchair, ready to celebrate her 100th birthday with food, family and a former first-grade student she taught in 1948.
Frank Abernathy, 73, brought his teacher an assortment of chocolates. When he was a student, Abernathy received a chocolate Kiss from Helsabeck, and he hasn’t forgotten for seven decades.
“I never repaid her,” he said.
Helsabeck spends her days at Sunrise reading and visiting with family. During her party Monday, her 7-year-old great-niece, Katie Helsabeck, showed her a picture book she had created.
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The centenarian was born in 1916 in Ether, a small Montgomery County community about 50 miles south of Greensboro.
She taught first grade for three decades, never having married. In retirement, she liked to cook, crochet, garden and get involved with her church.
She was able to stay in her Ether home with the help of caregivers until she was 99. She moved to Sunrise last year to be closer to her nieces, nephews, cousins and her only living sibling.
“We’re the only two left out of eight children,” said her brother, Ralph Helsabeck, 85. “She’s the oldest and I’m the youngest.”
Turning 100 is a milestone most don’t reach, but the number of people living to see the century mark is on the rise. American centenarians increased by nearly 6 percent from 50,454 in 2000 to 53,364 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.
In North Carolina, about 2,300 people are over 100, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Of the roughly 1 million people in Wake County, 191 of them are over 100. The number of centenarians in Wake is projected to double in the next 10 years.
Even if they don’t live to see 100, senior citizens are on the rise locally, and many of them want to remain active.
As Raleigh’s population ages, the city is offering more activities for residents over 50, said Todd Riddick, adult program recreation director.
“We are always looking to expand and do more,” Riddick said.
The city’s adult program operates at three facilities, offering fitness, education and computer classes, meetings, social activities, meals and drop-in programs.
Riddick said about 60,000 people attend events each year at the Five Points and Anne Gordon centers for active adults.
The newest facility, at the Walnut Terrace neighborhood in South Raleigh, opened last year.
As the program continues to grow, Riddick said he hopes to offer adult programming at additional locations.
“I think we’ll be more active in more activity centers in other places,” he said.
My paternal grandmother, Eleanor Cioffi, turned 100 in December.
That month, she moved from Cary, where she had been living by herself since the early 1990s, to the Magnolia Glen senior-living community in Raleigh.
Grandma C, as we call her, has been busy her whole life. Raised in Connecticut, she moved in 1960 to rural New Hampshire with her husband and two sons to open a restaurant with an adjacent motel called Cioffi’s.
After my grandfather died in 1978, she ran the restaurant and motel by herself for a few years before selling the business. Decades of retirement were spent playing golf, exercising, gardening and reading. She gave up her driver’s license in her mid-90s and now relies on a walker to get around.
At her senior-living community, she is an avid reader and watches a lot of sports, particularly soccer and NBA player LeBron James.
She also takes advantage of organized events. Some of the button art she has created hangs on my wall. When I visited this week, I heard about the well-attended cherry pie day celebration held earlier that day.
“I enjoy the activities that they provide, and I try to do them all,” she said.
She continued: “I don’t feel 100 and I never expected to live to 100. And as a matter of fact, I’m 100 and 5 months.”
‘I’m still here’
During her birthday celebration Monday, Helsabeck reflected on her life.
She remembers her students fondly. She was a strict teacher – all she had to do to keep her class in line was ring a bell. They used to make sure each day’s lesson was completed, she said.
“They were good, and they tried to help me (too).”
Helsabeck said she didn’t know if there was any big secret to living a long life.
“I’m still here, though,” she said. “That’s all that I know.”
Grandma C told me she has enjoyed her long life. She says her quality of life – her body and mind remain strong – has kept her going.
“I wouldn’t want to live then, if I didn’t have good health,” she said.
Chris Cioffi, 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi