Thirteen years ago when Fern Elam turned 90, her daughter Verda Benson asked what she wanted.
“She said she’d never ridden a motorcycle, and she wanted a ride,” Verda recalls with a laugh. So she arranged a motorcycle ride, and “I never asked her again what she wanted for her birthday.”
Fern likes to have fun. Eventually the Benson family got rid of the trampoline in the back yard because Fern liked to climb on, sitting and bouncing with her grandkids or by herself, but then she couldn’t get back down.
“She loved being out there,” Verda remembers. “The kids just think Gramma’s pretty special… she’s just kind of a little spitfire.”
Fern was born Sept. 4, 1910 in Hugoton, Kansas. She grew up there in Kansas with her 13 siblings, before moving to Colorado in her 20s. There, she worked at a soldier and sailor home, Verda recounted. Fern was married twice; her second husband passed away in 1974. She lived in the same house in Grand Junction from 1942 to 1994, when Verda moved her up to Alaska so she could care for her.
Now Fern lives in Heritage Place, a continuing care (nursing) home in Soldotna, where she loves to stay busy, said Gwen Johnson, the home’s social worker.
“She exhausts us she’s so busy,” Gwen said. “We all said we don’t want to live that long – holy smokes! She’s setting the bar awfully high.”
She starts her day exercising for 20 minutes on a stationary bike. She’s the treasurer for the resident council; she grows a few tomatoes in the home, watering them daily; she delivers newspapers to the other residents; she runs the till at garage sales to raise money for Relay for Life, and enjoys helping in the front office, shredding papers and putting stamps on envelopes.
She also helps set up the cards and chips for bingo on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The home has different kinds of cards, and colors and textures of chips, and Fern knows which ones residents prefer, said Johnson. If someone accidentally puts out the wrong kind, Fern steers them right.
“It’s helpful to volunteers,” Gwen said. “Bingo’s a very serious sport around here.”
Fern stays active mentally as well as physically. For many years, she was a reading buddy for students at Mountain View Elementary in Kenai, Gwen said, and she was very proud to be known there as a “foster grandparent.” The teachers she helped, retired now, stop by to play games with her regularly. She also does word-search puzzles.
On Sunday afternoons, her daughter Verda comes over and the two do two 300-piece puzzles. “We usually can do one in an hour and a half,” Verda said.
“She gets down because she can’t remember things as well as she wants,” Verda said, but “she’s very sharp for being 102 and a half.”
“She can get up and down still really well,” Verda added. “It amazes me. The other day we dropped a puzzle piece, and she said, ‘Scoot over, I’ll get it.’”
Verda said when she protested, Fern, who’s a petite person, said, “I can get down and get it easier than you.”
As the oldest resident, she’s an encouragement to the other residents, Gwen said, as well as being highly respected by staff, residents and families alike.
“I’ve just kind of been blessed to have her as long as I have,” Verda said. She attributes her mother’s longevity partly to genetics (of her 13 siblings, 9 are still living) and partly to the way she lives — keeping busy and staying positive.
“You decide if you’re going to be happy,” Verda recalled Fern saying.
“I’ve taken that as her philosophy – we all decide if we’re going to be happy.”