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.