Local centenarian celebrates birthday

Courtesty Photo/Verda Benson Kenai resident Verda Benson (left) visits with her mother, Fern Elam (right). Elam turned 105 on Sept. 4, 2015, and resides at Heritage Place in Soldotna, Alaska.

Courtesty Photo/Verda Benson Kenai resident Verda Benson (left) visits with her mother, Fern Elam (right). Elam turned 105 on Sept. 4, 2015, and resides at Heritage Place in Soldotna, Alaska.

Surrounded by old family photos and birthday cards in her room at Soldotna’s continuing care facility Heritage Place, Fern Elam reflected on how much things have changed in her 105 years of life.

Elam, born Sept. 4, 1910, in Kansas, is one of Alaska’s oldest — and most upbeat — living residents. While there is at least one Alaskan older than Elam — 110-year-old Clara Anderson, of Homer — it is hard to compile an exact record of centenarians in the state, according to State Demographer Eddie Hunsinger.

“We took a look, and estimate very few Alaskans – maybe as few as one – who are currently age 105 or more,” Hunsinger said in an email.

These days, Elam isn’t giving too much thought to her status as one of the oldest living Alaskans. Rather, she displays impressive physical and mental dexterity each day as she focuses on engaging with Heritage Place staff, exercising, helping with office duties and events, and completing weekly puzzles with her daughter, Kenai resident Verda Benson.

“I just like to keep busy,” Elam said with a smile. “When we (my siblings and I) didn’t keep busy, we’d get into mischief.”

The second oldest of 14 children, Elam grew up doing farm work with her family in Kansas, where trips into town were reserved for getting one’s tooth pulled, she said. She then moved to Colorado, where she was a nurse, before she came to Alaska to be closer to Benson in 1994.

For her 105th birthday, Elam will celebrate eat traditional cake and ice cream with the other residents of Heritage Place. Benson said she got her 105 roses in continuation of a tradition established when Kenai Mayor Pat Porter sent Elam 100 roses on her birthday five years ago.

“Every year since then we have added one rose to that,” Benson said.

Elam recently underwent surgery after breaking her hip in July, so her birthday celebration has been toned down this year, Benson said. The set back has not slowed her down, though. Elam cannot be kept from wheeling herself down the halls of Heritage Place without help from the staff, or from exercising on a stationary bike in the gym, said Administrative Assistant Gina Parrish.

“She’s fast at it. It’s embarrassing, actually,” Parrish said.

“My mother will never complain,” Benson said. “She came from a generation that, I think­, you didn’t complain.”

Elam recalled going out on horseback every morning to gather the rest of the family’s horses from their pasture as one of her fondest childhood memories. Now, her chores include shredding papers for the Heritage Place office, delivering newspapers to other residents, handling the money at the facility’s annual garage sale for the American Cancer Society, setting up the highly competitive games of bingo, and watering the small garden outside her window.

The garden includes tomato plants, which Fern periodically uses to get a taste of one of her favorite foods, fried green tomatoes.

“When they get bigger, I take them down and they (kitchen staff) fry them for me,” Elam said.

Elam also likes to exercise her mind. She and Benson can usually finish a 300-piece puzzle in less than two hours during her visits, Benson said.

Benson suspects good genes have something to do with her mother’s longevity. Out of Elam’s 13 siblings, seven are still living. Keeping such a strong body and mind is easier in part because of Elam’s extremely positive outlook on life, Berson said, and moving to Alaska had a lot to do with that.

“My mom’s attitude changed,” Benson said. “It was like, ‘I’m going to live life to the fullest,’ and I think, if anything, she’s taught me (to) live life to the fullest every day because we don’t know what tomorrow holds.”

Including Benson, Elam has three children, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Fern Elam, who turned 105 on Friday, holds a picture of herself with her 13 siblings while relaxing in her room on Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015, at Heritage Place in Soldotna, Alaska.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Fern Elam, who turned 105 on Friday, holds a picture of herself with her 13 siblings while relaxing in her room on Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015, at Heritage Place in Soldotna, Alaska.

More in News

The badge for the Kenai Police Department (Clarion file)
Walmart briefly evacuated after bomb threat

The investigation is ongoing.

Peninsula Clarion file
Merry voices to fill Kenai chamber

Historical society carolling event returns after hiatus

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
State officials urge vaccination as omicron spreads in US

Omicron was first identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

Alaska State Troopers logo.
1 hunter dead, another missing after boat hits rough seas off Whittier

The pair were reportedly hunting on Wednesday on Esther Island in Prince William Sound.

Kenai City Council members James Baisden (left) and Deborah Sounart (right) listen as member Teea Winger (center) speaks in support of legislation opposing government COVID-19 mandates, during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, in Kenai.
Kenai council declares opposition to mask mandates

The statement does not change city code or supersede federal law.

Signage indicates that face masks are required for entry to the Soldotna Public Library on March 25, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. The Soldotna City Council voted Wednesday to make mask-wearing optional in city facilities. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Masks recommended, not required in Soldotna city buildings

Council amends measure to make mask-wearing optional

Nick Begich III, seen here in this undated photo, is challenging Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives saying Alaska needs new energy in Washington D.C. (Courtesy photo / Alaskans for Nick Begich)
Nick Begich III touts fiscal conservatism in US House race

GOP candidate challenges Young’s record

Sockeye salmon. (Photo via Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
Fish and Game seeks comment on 2022 sport fish stocking plan

The Sport Fish Division plans to release approximately 7 million fish into the Alaska water systems over the next five years.

A map shows which parts of the Chugach National Forest are open to motorized winter recreation use for the 2021-2022 season. (Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
Parts of Chugach National Forest open to snowmachine use

The 2021-2022 winter motorized season will run through April 30.

Most Read