RI centenarians offer more than 7,000 years of living history


If there’s a secret for centenarians, they aren’t telling. At the 35th annual Governor’s Centenarians Brunch last Thursday, more than 70 Rhode Islanders over the age of 100 celebrated their milestone birthdays together, but couldn’t come to an agreement on what to thank for their shared longevity.

Romance novels, hard work and a close family all made the list of “secrets” for a long life. Gemma Litterio said she never drank or smoked, and that lifestyle keeps her healthy. Louise Silva, on the other hand, admitted to having a few vices.

“She loves to eat candy, cake, sugar and ice cream all day,” said Dorothy Silva-O’Neill, Silva’s daughter.

Silva, who lives at the Scandinavian Home in Cranston, was the oldest woman at the brunch. At 108 years old, she still loves to write, Silva-O’Neill said, and “is doing very well.”

Silva-O’Neill learned a lot from her mother, a longtime volunteer at the Cranston Senior Center, where she used to play the piano – a pastime she still enjoys. She worked in factories before marrying the late Manuel Silva, at which time she became a housewife.

“I learned not to give up, to persevere and do the best you can,” Silva-O’Neill said.

Polly Barey, whose mother Madaleine Toy is 100 years old, learned that family is the most important thing. Toy lives at the Scandinavian Home in Cranston now, but was a lifelong resident of Warwick. She is an eighth generation descendent of Roger Williams, and that historical lineage led her to volunteer with the Rhode Island Commission on Historic Cemeteries. She also did preservation and restoration work on the Christopher Rhodes House in Pawtuxet Village.

“She has just had an extraordinary life,” Barey said. “She did a lot of volunteer work.”

Toy worked at the Reinhardt jewelry factory as a teenager and then did secretarial work with the state for much of her life. She has three children, nine grandchildren and drove until she was 98 years old.

By executive order, Mayor Scott Avedisian named Toy an honorary commissioner of the Warwick Historic Cemetery Commission in recognition for her longtime commitment to the commission. Toy was one of the driving forces to establish the commission in 1987. The order also cited her involvement with the Warwick Historical Society, Pawtuxet Village Association and the Westbay Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.

Mary Taylor and Virginia Droitcoir, 100 and 99 years old respectively, were the current Warwick residents attending the brunch. They both live at Greenwich Farms. Taylor’s most memorable moment in her life was the day she turned 100; Droitcoir said her favorite memory was her wedding day on June 17, 1939.

Mario Hilario from NBC 10, emcee for the event, said seeing people full of life at 100 years old is an inspiration.

“This is what makes our wonderful state so great. We have to share your great optimism for life. It is very contagious,” he said.

Madeline Bache’s enthusiasm was contagious, and got a laugh from the crowded dining room last week, when she began giving Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena a back massage.

Thursday’s brunch was held at The Bridge at Cherry Hill in Johnston, and each of the centenarians was given a citation from Governor Lincoln Chafee. Combined, they represented more than 7,000 years of living history. The event coincides with Older Americans Month, which has taken place in May since 1963. The theme of the month, this year, is “Never Too Old to Play.”

According to the 2010 Census, Rhode Island is home to more than 210,000 people age 60 and older – or 19 percent of the population. With 25,000 of those individuals age 85 and older, Rhode Island has more seniors over the age of 85 than any other state in the nation.

“It’s a very, very important population for our state,” said Governor Chafee. “We want to make sure we have programs in the state that help you keep your independence.”

Catherine Taylor, director of the Division of Elderly Affairs, said that Rhode Island should be proud of its impressive centenarian population, and said it could be due, in large part, to the state’s care of seniors.

“As we all age, we have the supports in place to help us age in place,” she said, adding, “thank you for inspiring us.”

Gene Brown from the regional Administration on Aging office also attended the brunch and said that Rhode Island’s small size is an asset when it comes to senior services, because the Division of Elderly Affairs serves as a clearinghouse, so to speak, and state agencies can work together with relative ease.

“With less layers, they are better able to serve their seniors,” he said. “They provide a lot of social services for seniors, and that’s one of our major goals, is to keep seniors within the community.”


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