A Milestone in Sunapee: Woman Celebrates 110th Birthday

  • Pudge Eaton, former executive director of Sunapee Cove Assisted Living, gives Hazel Nilson a hug on her 110th birthday in Sunapee, N.H., on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Eaton brought Nilson peach ginger jam, her favorite flavor. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hazel Nilson receives high fives and a hand shake from Bob Grimley as she celebrates her 110th birthday at Sunapee Cove Assisted Living on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Nilson gives Grimley multiple high fives whenever they see each other, Grimley said. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — August Frank

  • Hazel Nilson sits down to a birthday lunch with family to celebrates her 110th birthday at Sunapee Cove Assisted Living on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018 in Sunapee, N.H. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. August Frank

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2018 11:35:31 PM
Modified: 8/22/2018 3:13:41 PM

Sunapee — She’s sometimes a bit forgetful, the elderly woman said, sitting at a dining table in the Sunapee Cove Assisted Living facility, where members of the media cluttered up the serving lanes. Age will do that to you. And because of her lungs, the woman has to keep the plastic tubes inserted into her nose all day, and even when she sleeps — that was annoying at first, though she’s gotten used to it.

But Lois Flanders, 91, said there’s one thing that always puts a smile on her face — and that’s Hazel Nilson, whose 110th birthday celebration had filled Sunapee Cove’s parking lot to overflowing.

“She’s just a gem,” Flanders said, forking a chunk of chicken into her mouth. “She’s full of it.”

Valerie Gage, who was sitting opposite Flanders and waiting for her fajita to arrive, said she plays cards with Nilson sometimes.

“She’s like the Azerbaijan,” Gage said, citing a country that is known for an unusually high concentration of centenarians — those who live beyond the age of 100. “We admire her and we love her.”

“She jokes about baseball teams,” said Flanders, citing the lifelong passion that Nilson, a Chicago native, has for the Cubs. “And she does a little dance when she meets you.”

Nilson has inspired not only her peers, but a whole universe of sports fans. After all, she may be the only — and was certainly the most dedicated — Cubs fan who was alive for two of the team’s World Series championships. The first was in the year of her birth, 1908, and the second in 2016 — when she cheered the team on at the age of 108.

As Gage and Flanders looked on, Nilson was sitting at a nearby table covered with birthday cards, a peach pie and a strawberry cake surrounded by strawberry cupcakes. When she recognized the face of her favorite local television news reporter, she threw up her hands and waggled them in excitement. When she rose from her seat and headed for the elevator, she grasped the hands of other residents as she passed them.

“Hi, sweetie,” one woman said. “Stay out of trouble.”

“Get in trouble,” said the next. “It’s your birthday.”

As Nilson passed the next seated resident, they exchanged a high-five, then four more high-fives, before moving into the final, complex stages of a long-established secret handshake.

“She always does that,” he said, admiringly, when she’d moved on.

She didn’t look a day over 98.

The dining room behind her, Nilson quickly scooted down the hallway with the aid of her walker, and entered the elevator, which had a flyer taped to the wall wishing her a happy birthday.

When she got off on the third floor, one of the living facility’s staff stopped and gave her a hug and a firm kiss on the cheek.

“Happy birthday, hon,” she said. “I love you.”

The staff member, Cathy Mayo, said she started working at Sunapee Cove about four years ago, which is about the same time Nilson arrived.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Mayo said. Nilson has often regaled the staff and residents with stories of her past.

“She did some bootlegging,” Mayo said. “She told us she was carrying bottles all in the lining of her overcoat, across the border. ‘You did that?’ we would ask her, and she would say ‘Yes I did.’ ”

Nilson entered a third-floor kitchen, where family members and friends from outside the Cove — some from Minnesota — had gathered for the birthday celebration.

Nilson, a tiara on her head, sat at the head of the table, which was covered with all sorts of food — lobster rolls, California rolls, seafood rolls and egg salad on split rolls.

And, of course, another cake.

“It’s against the law to light the candles,” said a man, removing them a moment before everyone began to sing Happy Birthday.

Nilson watched, beaming.

According to the Gerontology Research Group, a nonprofit formed by physicians and scientists from a variety of universities, the number of verified supercentenarians (those 110 years old or older) has risen in recent years, with roughly 45 identified in the U.S. (representing a total population that is thought to be more than 400 worldwide).

Last July, Manchester native Marie-Josephine Clarice Gaudette, widely known as “Mother Cecilia,” died at her convent in Rome at the age of 115, making her the fifth-oldest person at the time.

Researchers say people who live to great ages tend to have a blend of good genes and a healthy lifestyle that have allowed them to run the gauntlet of decades without contracting life-threatening diseases and conditions.

Nilson, who is slight of stature, has always been an active and energetic person, dating back to the days when she was a gym teacher, according to Pam Barer, a distant relative who is nonetheless close to Nilson.

Barer, who now is 72, has known Nilson since she was 8 years old.

“She always had white hair,” Barer said. “She hasn’t really changed much.”

Barer remembers that Nilson was known for cooking her Swedish coffee cakes (Hazel is German, but her husband, now deceased, was Swedish), and for a love of soccer.

“When she was in her 70s, she didn’t want to run any more, so she had to stop playing on the team,” Barer said. “But when she was 80, I remember the kids were in the yard, ages 5, 7 and 8, playing soccer. And Hazel was playing goalie. They were not going easy on her, and she made some saves.”

Daughter-in-law Nancy Nilson, now 80 herself, says that her husband’s mother was very welcoming when Nancy first married her son Robert — 58 years ago.

“She was a big golfer,” she said. “Always busy.”

When national media featured Nilson as a Cubs fan of advanced age a few years ago, it resulted in a wave of well wishes from people around the country, according to her daughter-in-law.

They sent her T-shirts, a rose made of the skin of a baseball, and a pair of pennies — one from her birth year of 1908, and one from the current year.

Nilson, sitting at the head of the table, said she had no regrets.

“Not a one,” she said. “I’ve had a good life. A lot of good family. Good friends. And here they are.”

The secret to longevity, she said, is to surround oneself with good friends.

And what does she think of the Cubs this year?

“Well,” she said, grimacing to show that it was a weakness, though, perhaps, one that could be forgiven.

“They’re a little young.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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