HINGHAM – "Do you know how this all began?" Helen Caldwell asks about her brush with fame in later life.
Caldwell, who celebrated her 100th birthday Saturday with a family party at her son Larry's Braintree home, was the instigator a dozen years ago.
She was 88 and seven of her 10 brothers and sisters, ages 79 to 96, were all still alive. She saw a notice at the Hingham police station: a Boston longevity study needed families with two or more living siblings over the age of 80.
"We've got a lot more than that," she thought, and she talked her siblings into joining the Long Life Family Study at Boston University Medical Center. Sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the study has followed 5,000 people from 500 families to learn how people age and why some are healthier than others.
The eight Hurlburt siblings – Caldwell, her four sisters and three brothers – were featured in Time magazine on Feb. 22, 2010, in the B.U. Alumni Magazine and at a panel discussion at the Boston Museum of Science. They have participated in yearly interviews about their lifestyles ever since.
In 2010, when I asked six of the eight Hurlburt siblings about their long lives, each gave different reasons: "living right," staying happy and positive, not complaining, going to church, exercising, good food and God.
"We all just got along, were easygoing and tried not to let things bother us," Caldwell said then. "And it must be in our genes."
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Asked again last week, she shrugged and said, "I don't know. But they call up those of us who are still here once a year and ask a million questions. They ask what do you eat, if you are active. ... It's interesting."
This year, she will proudly report she is now one of three of the 11 siblings to reach 100.
Four of the 11 are still alive: Caldwell; Mildred MacIsaac,105, in Maine; Walter Hurlburt, 95, in California; and Peggy Brack, 91, in Weymouth.
Four others have been lost since 2010: Agnes Buckley, of New Hampshire, died at age 103 in 2017; James "Skeeter" Hurlburt, of California, died at 99 in 2017; Peter Hurlburt, of Braintree, died at 84 in 2013; and Muriel Gillooly, of West Roxbury, died at 91 in 2011.
Who will hold the family record?
Does Caldwell have any ambitions about outliving her record-holding 105-year-old sister, Millie?
"I hope the heck I don't last that long," she said quickly and added, "Oh my God. What for? Wow, that's really something."
What matters, she said, is the present.
"I'm doing great," she said. "I enjoy everything. I mean, it's great living here."
Caldwell is healthy and active, has a devoted family around her and does "what I darn please."
Caldwell's seven children, including five in New England, stay in close touch. The seven are Bob in No. Carolina, Janet In Mashpee, Walter in Maine, Anne in Rochester, Peg in Wellesley, Loraine in Connecticut and Larry in Braintree. Many of her 17 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren are also nearby. A crafter, she made quilts for every one of her grandchildren.
Her husband, Walter, died at age 75 in 1992, and when she was 85, she sold their Braintree home and has lived independently in her own apartment at the Linden Ponds retirement community for 15 years.
"I love it here," she said.
Every day, she walks either outside or inside, always keeping a water bottle handy. She has a quick, steady step and points out the long corridors she uses as her walking track.
"You can go a mile in here," she said. Asked who cleans her apartment, she said, "Me, of course!"
Her favorite phrase for someone she admires is "a hot ticket." Most noticeable is her cheerful equanimity.
"What's to get upset about?" she replied when asked how she handles stress.
Until a few years ago, she volunteered in the resale shop downstairs.
A centenarian's typical day
On a typical day, Caldwell, who "sleeps like a log," gets up at about 8 a.m., turns on the radio and fixes a breakfast of Cheerios and raisin bran with banana, coffee and a coffee roll, "never bacon and eggs." Lunch may be a sandwich. She brings up dinner from the café downstairs, heats it in the microwave and watches her favorite Fox News talk shows on a large-screen TV.
Although she has some macular degeneration, she reads a daily paper, The Patriot Ledger, and says she "would be lost" without it. She finds it relaxing to work on jigsaw puzzles. One is always set up on poster board in her bedroom beside the keyboard she taught herself to play years ago.
A cabinet in her bedroom displays 16 dolls of historic figures including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Using a kit, she made them all, along with their hand-stitched outfits. Her favorite, in a blue gown, has a music box that plays her favorite song, "Fascination."
Because of COVID, Caldwell's 100th birthday party was downsized from 75 guests to nine. Her family ordered her favorite Asian food, played a video with 200 family photos and presented proclamations from Gov. Charlie Baker and Braintree Mayor Charles Kokoros, who also declared Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, "Helen Caldwell Day" in Braintree.
"My mom really is a good person," her son Larry Caldwell, of Braintree, said. "She worked at the South Shore Hospital gift shop as a volunteer for probably 25-plus years. She went every Tuesday and stayed until well into her 80s. She never missed!"
Reach Sue Scheible at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Family famous for longevity adds centenarian Helen Caldwell of Hingham