INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Sarah Knauss is 118 years old.
She is the world’s oldest person and lives in an Allentown nursing
Her daughter, Kitty Sullivan, turned 95 Tuesday. She just gave
Oldsmobile and moved into a retirement community across the
street from her
mother. The daughter says she’s having a hard time adjusting to
living around so
many old people.
“I feel like an inmate,” she said.
Sarah’s grandson, Robert Butz, 73, lives near Reading.
He has collected Social Security for a decade.
His mother has collected Social Security for 30 years, his grandmother for
“It goes on and on like a brook,” said Kitty Sullivan. “They say one day it
will be common.”
More than 1,500 of the world’s leading aging experts are gathering in
Philadelphia this weekend for
the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.
Virtually every issue on the conference agenda — Social Security, longevity,
care, quality of life, women and aging — is brought sharply into focus when
looking at the lives of
Sarah Knauss and her family.
Tom Perls, a Harvard University geriatrician and expert on people who live
to 100, will visit Sarah
Knauss on Sunday.
Sarah lives at the Phoebe Home in Allentown, where she is treated as a
national treasure. She can
still talk, though her voice is soft and frail and seems as if it takes all of her
118 years to reach your
ears. She is gracious, and constantly thanks the nursing staff for putting on
her sweater or bathing
her or pulling up her covers. Usually she says, “ooooooooohhhh,” which the
staff says is Sarah
shorthand for “Oooooohhhhh thank you.”
“I’ve worked here for 14 years and she’s the sweetest person I’ve ever
known,” said Carol Smith, a
nursing assistant. “I think she should live to 200.”
So many things about Sarah Knauss are surprising.
The oldest woman in the world can still blush.
When Emmanual Njamfon, a nursing assistant, walked into the cafeteria
Tuesday and said loudly
into her ear, “You are beautiful, Sarah” (she had just had her hair done), she
turned her head away
like a school girl, smiling broadly, utterly pleased. The oldest person in the
world can still shop.
After lunch, a staffer wheeled Sarah down to a holiday craft fair near the
lobby. The staffer showed
Sarah two needlepoint poinsettia pins, and Sarah asked, “How much are
they?” ($1. She bought
The oldest person eats primarily sweets. At lunch Tuesday, Sarah rejected a
effort to spoon her mashed potatoes and picked up her own spoon and went
directly for the dish of
vanilla ice cream.
She emptied it — albeit extremely slowly.
Then wiped her chin, like a lady.
Then moved onto the yogurt and the shoofly pie with more ice cream.
She never touched the chicken or potatoes or cooked carrots.
“She loves chocolate turtles,” Kitty said. “I put three on the little table in
front of her now and within
half an hour they’re gone. Anybody else would be dead. Her doctor says
leave her alone.”
Sarah is about 5 feet tall, 90 pounds. She gets her shoulder-length hair
washed and set each week.
(Curls on the top, french wave in the back.) Her hair has all but stopped
growing. The ladies in the
salon just trim the dried-out tips every six months.
The world’s oldest woman still sits tall and graceful in her wheelchair. Her
family believes she has no
aches and pains. The nursing home staff says she must have them, but she
never complains. Sarah
takes only one medicine a day, a heart drug. She is anemic, and last August
went to a hospital for a
blood transfusion. Her family has said that no medical procedures should be
taken to extend her
life. “We don’t believe in that,” says her daughter.
Sarah Knauss is the oldest of six living generations.
She is first. Kitty, second; Robert Butz, third.
Next comes Kathy Jacoby. She’s Bob Butz’s daughter and the fourth
Jacoby, 49, is a great-granddaughter and a grandmother.
Her daughter is 27, and her grandson, 3.
Experts in longevity say that soon in America, five-generation families will
be the norm. Six
generations will not be uncommon.
Jacoby visits her great-grandmother Sarah every month.
But Sarah doesn’t recognize Jacoby anymore, even though she lived with
her from age 98 to 104 —
babysitting Jacoby’s son and daughter, her great-great-grandchildren.
Jacoby can’t relax visiting her great-grandmother because she’s thinking she
could be visiting her
grandmother or her own mother and father or her daughter or her grandson,
Bradley Patton, 3, of
Now think about little Bradley.
How does he keep all his grandmothers straight?
Sarah Knauss is Great Nana.
Kitty Sullivan is GiGi, for Great, Great.
Lucy Butz, Bob’s wife and Bradley’s great-grandmother, is Nana.
Charlotte Patton, his paternal grandmother, is Mom Mom.
Kathy Jacoby, his maternal grandmother, is simply Kathy.
“There weren’t any names left for me,” explained Jacoby.
Sarah Clark was born Sept. 24, 1880, when Rutherford B. Hayes was
president. The nation had
38 states and 53 million people.
She married Abraham Lincoln Knauss, who became recorder of deeds for
Lehigh County. They
were married for more than 60 years. He died at age 86 in 1965.
Abraham Lincoln Knauss did something extremely rare for his day: He
chose a slightly smaller
pension, but one that would continue for his wife even after his death. To
this day, Sarah receives
about $100 a month from Lehigh County, though that money, like her
Social Security, goes directly
to the nursing home to pay for her care.
Sarah Knauss, like millions of Americans, has outlived all her assets. She
has no savings and is
supported by Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
Under discussion this weekend at the aging conference is how the nation
will pay for long-term care
of an exploding population of very old people. Will individuals save
enough themselves to support
their much-longer life spans — especially women, who tend to live longer
Another big topic will be the fate of Social Security, particularly the
question of privatization.
Should individuals be allowed to invest directly in the stock market? Or
should Social Security
remain as it is, a contract between generations in which today’s workers pay
for the retirement of
the generation that came before them?
Sarah Knauss is not capable of giving an opinion.
Neither is her great, great, great grandson, Bradley, age 3.
But the four generations in between all have an opinion.
Kitty Sullivan, 95: “I believe in Social Security. I do not believe in
privatizing it. Definitely not. I
have faith in the United States government to take care of me. Putting it in
the stock market is
Robert Butz, 73: “I am not for large government in any way, shape or form.
I think that Social
Security, if individuals were allowed to do their own investing, they’d
probably come up with a lot
more in a shorter length of time than what the government is producing. I
believe that there should
be a minimum that has to be earned or that privilege of self-investing can
be taken away. I think 50
percent you run your own way. And 50 percent has to stay in the traditional
system we have.”
Kathy Jacoby, 49: “I’ve kind of been preparing myself that it might not be
there when I get there. If
it’s there, great. If not, well, I hope I’m ready.”
Kristina Patton, 27, Jacoby’s daughter and Bradley’s mother: “I haven’t
really thought about it, that
far in advance. . . . It helped my grandparents out. And it actually helps
Great Nana out. I’d like it
to be around. Other than that I really haven’t thought about it.”
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Sarah Knauss is the world’s
oldest living person with
an age that can be proved.
But the world record belongs to Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who died
in August of 1997
after living 122 years and 164 days.
Kitty Sullivan, at 95, does not want to live as long as her mother.
“She’s almost totally deaf, ” Kitty said. “I sit in front of her doing
needlepoint, otherwise I fall asleep.
She sleeps most of the time. I’m a frustrated person and I’m sure she is, too.
She’ll say, ‘You have
on a new blouse.’ Or, I’ll hold up needlepoint and she’ll say, ‘That’s pretty.’
So I know she’s with it.
But because of this awful deafness, there’s nothing to do about it. She can’t
hear. We can’t
Why has Sarah lived so long?
Her genetic makeup is obviously programmed for longevity.
Sarah’s family credits her disposition and ability to adjust and adapt.
“When they told her she was the world’s oldest person last spring,” Kitty
recalled, “do you know
what she said? ‘So what.’ That’s why she’s living so long. Nothing ever fazed
her. Always calm and
serene all her life, whenever there was a crisis.”