She got a letter from President Obama
The world’s oldest person is laughing and feeling “good” about turning 116 on Saturday.
“I feel good, I just can’t get around like I would like to,” Jeralean Talley told TIME on the eve of her birthday in a phone call from her Inkster, Mich. home aided by her 77-year-old daughter Thelma Holloway. The Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group named the Montrose, Ga. native the oldest person in the world last month after the two women who held the title before her died within the same week—Misao Okawa of Osaka, Japan at 117 and Gertrude Weaver of Camden, Ark. at 116.
On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Inkster threw her a birthday party and gave her $116 as a birthday present—one dollar for each year of her life. She also received a letter from President Obama. “The breadth of your experiences and depth of your wisdom reflect the long path our Nation has traveled since 1899,” the message said. “You have been an important part of the great unending story that is America.” In addition, her physical therapist gave her a bouquet of roses Friday morning, and she is gearing up for two more birthday parties this weekend, including one this Sunday at her church, the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church.
When she isn’t going to party after party, she is home watching Jeopardy! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show and clapping along to whatever is playing on the radio. Over the years, her hobbies have included fishing for trout and catfish, sewing dresses, making quilts, playing casino slot machines and bowling—scoring 200 in one game before she stopped at 104 years old because her legs got too weak. She can still eat her favorite foods like chicken wings and potato salad, and while her specialty dish has always been Hog Head Cheese (made from pigs’ ears and feet), her daughter Thelma Holloway says Talley “stays away from butter and cheese” now.
But that’s because her tastes have changed, not because of any health reasons. Holloway claims Talley’s doctor “didn’t find anything wrong” with her during a check-up earlier week and says blood pressure pills are the only medication that she takes regularly. “She’s still in her right mind,” according to Holloway.
It is not unheard of for people over 110 to be this healthy. As TIME previously reported, some experts think a rare combination of genes might explain why super-centenarians age more slowly and don’t develop age-related diseases like dementia, heart disease, or cancer, to name a few. It is also possible that these genes are on the X chromosome, and because women have two of those, that would explain why almost all of the verified super-centenarians are female.
Talley maintains the secret to long life is faith in God and being kind to others, but her family still can’t believe Talley is celebrating her 116th birthday this week.
“I want to be able to live that long myself,” Aisha Holloway, her 39-year-old great-granddaughter, said in a phone call. “I work at a rehab center where I see older people that give up, so it’s kinda emotional because I see my grandma at this age and still fighting.”
Likewise, Talley’s daughter Thelma adds Talley’s long life “is something her grand children and great-grandchildren can be proud of, history for them to read about.”