VERBANIA, ITALY: In one month it will be Emma Morano’s birthday. Though she hasn’t invited anyone, people from around the world are still likely to turn up to celebrate with the last known person alive to have been born in the 19th century.
“I’m 116 years and on 27 November, I’ll be 117,” this alert and chatty lady tells AFP in her room in Verbania, a town in northern Italy on Lake Maggiore.
On a marble-topped chest of drawers stands proudly the Guinness World Records certificate declaring Morano, born in 1899, to be the world’s oldest living person.
There is also a photograph of her and her doctor Carlo Bava holding eggs: the secret to her long life appears to lie in eschewing all received medical wisdom.
“I eat two eggs a day, and that’s it. And cookies. But I do not eat much because I have no teeth,” she says.
The egg habit dates from when she was diagnosed with anaemia at 20 in the wake of World War I and a doctor advised her to eat three a day, two raw and one cooked.
She maintained that regime for 90 years and is believed to have eaten over 100,000 eggs and counting.
“Emma has always eaten very few vegetables, very little fruit. When I met her, she ate three eggs per day, two raw in the morning and then an omelette at noon, and chicken at dinner,” said Bava, who has been her doctor for the past 27 years.
Now she lives mostly on biscuits “and does not want to eat meat because she doesn’t like it anymore and someone told her it causes cancer,” he said.
Morano is not even sure she’ll have a slice of her birthday cake, saying “the last time I ate a little, but then I did not feel good”.
She may still be some way off the previous record, held by France’s Jeanne Calment who lived to be 122, but Morano, the eldest of eight children who has outlived all her younger siblings, knows turning 117 will be an event to celebrate.
“People come. I don’t invite anybody but they come. From America, Switzerland, Austria, Turin, Milan… They come from all over to see me,” she says with an amused smile.
Birthdays aside, Morano is a solitary person. Having left her violent husband in 1938 shortly after the death in infancy of her only son, she lived alone, working in a factory producing jute sacks to support herself.
She clung to her independence, only taking on a full-time caregiver last year, though she has not left her small two-room apartment for 20 years, and has been bed-bound for the last year.
While her mind is alert, she is very deaf, speaks with difficulty and does not see well enough to watch television, spending her time instead either sleeping or snacking.
Bava puts her longevity party down to genetics — Morano’s mother died at 91 and at least two of her sisters lived to be over 100 — but said having a daily routine and her great strength of character had also likely played their parts.
“She is a very determined person. She has never wanted to go to hospital, she’s never received any particular (health) care. She’s suffered from a bit of bronchitis, had a (blood) transfusion, and some stitches, but always at home.”
“Now she’s well, she’s very well, but it’s clear she lives every day in a very, very precarious equilibrium,” he said.
Bava admits he feels a bit like “the keeper of the Tower of Pisa, which has been leaning for centuries. The day it topples over, someone will be held responsible.
“When Emma dies, people will hold me accountable”.