Carmella Nardolillo will blow out her candles – 107 of them – today to the accompaniment of cheers, applause and good wishes from her large family and many friends.
For the Orchard Park woman, it will be a milestone birthday.
“I’m here for a reason,” said Nardolillo, who still lives on her own and takes no medication, a mischievous gleam in her clear brown eyes. “I’m here to straighten up my children.”
But Nardolillo’s birthday is not just a personal epoch. It also marks a demographic shift for the Buffalo Niagara region.
More than ever, people here are living into not just old age.
They’re making it to old, old age – as in, their late 80s and 90s – and even 100 and more.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Randy Hoak, Erie County’s interim commissioner for senior services, on whether people in Erie County are living to very old age more frequently these days.
“We have a client who … just recently turned 106, and we have provided a number of services to her in the past to keep her in her home,” Hoak said of that Depew senior. “I previously worked at the Erie County Home out in Alden and ... they had 5 centenarians living there. And our oldest [Home] resident, who recently passed away, was 107.”
It’s clear that a demographic change is under way, according to data drawn from the census and provided by Erie County’s Senior Services Department
The numbers show that people older than 85 have grown significantly since 1970 as a proportion of the total county population.
In that year, people in the 85-and-up demographic accounted for less than 1 percent of the county’s total. In 2010, those 85 and up – nearly 24,000 people – represented 2.6 percent of the county population.
And, the change is reflected in slightly younger age brackets, as well.
Men and women age 75 and older made up less than 4 percent of the population of the county in 1970, the data shows. But, by 2010, those 75 and older represented 8.1 percent of the population in the county.
That’s a trend that geriatric specialists see reflected in their own practices.
“There’s no question about it,” said Dr. Danielle Kwakye-Berko, a geriatric specialist physician at the Geriatric Center of Western New York in DeGraff Memorial Hospital, which treats at least 3,000 older residents of the region. “It has a lot to do with medications and with patients’ awareness of their physical health and what is required to live long.”
Not only are these people living longer, many are also leading more active lives, said Hoak, the interim county commissioner.
“We have a woman ... who participates in our fitness programs, and we have video of her jumping rope,” Hoak said of the woman who will turn 91 in April. “These folks have a lot to offer our communities. We have folks who are well into their 80s who are involved in volunteer opportunities.”
For Nardolillo, born Carmella Mary Dettelis in New Jersey in 1906 – five years after Buffalo’s Pan-Am Expo and during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt – life has not been easy, but it has been full.
Left school to help at home
She came to Buffalo with her Italian-American family at age 6 and settled in Sloan. She managed to stay in school until the third grade. Then there were some of her 11 siblings to care for – all of them now gone – so she was needed at home.
“I had to stay home and help my mother,” Nardolillo recalled this week, during a conversation in the kitchen of her younger daughter, Rosanne Lucci, who is 84.
Nardolillo met her husband, Michael Nardolillo, a longtime employee of the DL&W Railroad, when she was a young woman of 14. They married in 1924 in St. Francis of Assisi Church.
The couple at first worried that they wouldn’t be able to have children, so they adopted a daughter, Marie, from Father Nelson H. Baker’s orphanage and infant home in Lackawanna in 1926.
After that, Nardolillo gave birth to three more children, Rosanne, Frank and Carl.
All of Nardolillo’s four children – now in their 70s and 80s – are alive and living in Western New York. Her husband of 55 years died in 1979.
She has 17 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren (with two more on the way) and seven great-great-grandchildren.
Lifetime of hard work
Nardolillo, who drove her own car until age 93 and had her hip replaced at 91, attributes her physical stamina and strength to a lifetime of hard work. At various times, she worked at Sattler’s on Broadway, as a boss on a produce farm in North Collins, and for Curtiss-Wright, in order to supplement her husband’s salary.
“He was making 23 dollars every two weeks,” Nardolillo recalled of her husband. “I had to raise four children on that salary. I was saving pennies. Pennies.”
Of her years on Lovejoy’s Goethe Street, raising her family, Nardolillo said: “I don’t think there is a woman in East Buffalo that worked as hard as I did.”
For her birthday celebration today, Nardolillo and her family were planning the usual: breakfast at the pancake house, then a trip to the casinos, then a stop at a bingo hall in Fort Erie where she likes to try her luck. A family party will also take place at night, Nardolillo’s family members said.
Nardolillo’s support system is extensive and strong; several family members check in on her every day. Nardolillo herself said she is firm in her wish to remain living in her own Orchard Park home.
“I like to be alone,” she said.
She enjoys watching TV programs, sitting in a favorite chair, feeding the wildlife in her backyard and eating Chinese food.
Her children said that Nardolillo, who said she takes no medication other than an occasional Aleve, seems more than capable of managing in her own space. She has lived in Orchard Park for 46 years.
“She still makes her own chicken soup and stock,” said Rosanne Lucci, laughing.
Support systems for those in the upper ranges of senior living are key, according to Hoak. The support allows people who wish to remain independent to do so, he said.
Even so, these situations can be tricky, he said.
“What I find interesting is that, a lot of these folks, at 106, 107 – their children are not likely to be alive,” Hoak said. “What I find with these folks is, their support systems are not there. Or they have an overburdened support system. The grandchildren could be in their 50s and 60s but may be caring for their own parents.”
“You’ve heard about the sandwich generation – this is a sandwich with multiple layers.”
Hoak said many families that successfully take care of the very elderly are doing a great job.
“It’s certainly a testament to their dedication, because it’s not easy,” he said.
Faith sustained her
Nardolillo, a Catholic since birth, said that her faith and her prayers keep her going.
“Jesus is my company,” she said. “When I get up, Jesus is with me. I tell my kids, ‘Always remember, without Jesus, you wouldn’t be here. Jesus gets you where you want to go.’ ”
Looking at her gift of years – challenged by hard work, but blessed with family and friends – Nardolillo said this: “I’ve had a good life. A tough life. But a good life.”
As for her beauty regimen, Nardolillo chalks up her glowing skin to her healthy diet – heavy on homemade pastas and beans and greens, as well as red wine and Tequila Rose in modest quantities – and to a simple regimen she has followed since she was a girl.
“You know what I do?” she said. “I wash my face with hot water. Then I put ice cubes on my face. Then, I put lemons on my face – fresh lemons. Twice a week.”
Nardolillo, clad in a teal-blue sweater with sequins and a sparkly bracelet, silver drop earrings framing her face, said it’s important to take such steps – no matter what your stage in life.
“Oh, I take care of myself,” she said, smiling. “Even in my old age.”