Joe Merlina said his mother is “the queen” of her nursing home, and like a queen, Frances Merlina wore a tiara and sparkly bracelet to celebrate her 105th birthday.
Frances Merlina, the oldest resident at the Homeland Center home in Harrisburg, Pa., apparently has staffers wrapped around her little finger, her son said in a Tuesday interview with ABCNews.com.
“The thing of it is, the young ladies up there love her so much … and everybody calls her nana,” he said.
“And when she wants something now, she’s in a wheelchair — the whole thing is, she holds up her hand and she says ‘yoo hoo! yoo hoo!’ It’s just a lot of fun up there and we keep everybody in stitches,” said Joe Merlina, 78.
Joe Merlina said his mother, who was born in 1909, had a rough start to life. When she was 5 years old, her mother died, and she and her sister had to go live in an orphanage.
“She spoke only Italian and the home was run by Irish nuns, so she started out tough. That’s a way to come up,” he said, adding that his mother’s parents had emigrated from Italy.
The secret to her longevity? She eats tomato soup — a lot.
“When she was younger, she couldn’t swallow so everything was just liquid. I mean even a pill had to be smashed. … So with that it was always soup, and it was always tomato soup,” Joe Merlina said.
Frances Merlina also eats three cookies every day, according to a report in the Patriot-Ledger newspaper.
Merlina said his mother remained in remarkably good health until she fell and broke her foot a few years ago.
“And we were at the hospital and it was in the evening, my brother and I were there and the doctor said, ‘well, when was the last time you were in the hospital or saw a doctor?’ And she looked at my brother and she said ‘How old are you?’ He said ‘Sixty-five.’ She said ‘Sixty-five 65 years ago.’ And the doctor said ‘that’s why you lived this long,’” Merlina said, laughing at the memory.
Barry Ramper II, president and CEO of Homeland Center, has gotten to know Merlina since she moved into the center seven years ago. He describes her as a calm, humble, soft-spoken woman who is always put-together and who doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
“Frances is a tremendous lady and anyone who has the opportunity to spend any time with her — one can only receive nothing but tremendous benefit from that opportunity,” he said.
Frances Merlina’s birthday celebration on Sunday started with mass at the center, then finished with a party — complete with cake. More than 100 family members and well-wishers attended, Ramper said.
Merlina — who had had her nails done bright red at the center’s full-service salon — enjoyed the celebration, Ramper said.
Merlina is one of 142 residents at the center, which has three units to care for seniors who require varying levels of care. The second-oldest resident there is 97 years old, Ramper said.
Merlina had four children with her husband, Andy Merlina. He died in 1980 at age 74.
Joe Merlina said he’s grateful to the staff at Homeland for the care his mother receives.
It’s “above and beyond the call,” he said. “And it’s just a pleasure — you know, here I am at 78 and I still have my mother, you know, how many people can say that?”