Keeping Things Simple Helps Her Survive

Tough, calm, and wise, this 101-year-old American is fiercely dedicated to her family's roots

Erma Rosenhan, born in Salt Lake City, Utah, traveled to Goldlauter, Germany, in August 1939 as a young woman in her mid-20s — right before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. She had come to the small German village, where her grandmother lived, as part of a 10-month genealogical research trip to find the family records of her grandparents.

Erma Rosenhan with her four-year-old neighbor, Ivy Elder. The Elders do a lot to take care of Erma—taking out her trash, giving her rides, and sometimes providing meals.
Erma Rosenhan hugs a young neighbor, Ivy Elder. The Elders help her by taking out her trash and giving her rides when she needs them.

Germany had already carried out the Kristallnacht pogrom, a two-day event. The Nazis burned over 250 synagogues and trashed and looted over 7,000 Jewish businesses. Dozens of Jewish people were killed while police and fire brigades stood by. The country was on the verge of war when Rosenhan received a telegram, likely from a family member or friend: She should leave immediately for Amsterdam.

So she did. She took off, and even left her clothes at the dry cleaners. She bartered with a taxi driver to take her across the border to Holland, although the German government had already begun to ration gasoline. She arrived in Amsterdam without a cent, and with the help of a church group there (she’s a member of the Mormon church), she eventually made her way back home by train to Utah.

Rosenhan has long been fearless, resourceful, and independent. At 101, she still lives alone in the home where she grew up in Salt Lake City. Until she was 90 years old, she did her own yard work, including mowing her lawn. With some frustration, she finally consented to allowing her 82-year-old nephew to help with some of the chores.

This determined centenarian has never married nor had any children, but she doesn’t regret it. “It hasn’t bothered me a bit. I’ve been happy as a bug in a rug. Now I wonder if I’ll ever want my wings clipped,” she told LifeZette. At one point she did own a cedar chest full of fine china and crystal goblets for when she got married. But as the years went on, she began to feel grateful whenever a goblet broke. It meant one less thing she had to keep clean.

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She keeps a picture on her mantel of herself, looking spry and stylish, with a young man by her side. He got drafted in the war, and though he survived, war changes people in unmistakable ways. They lost touch afterward.

Her family relationships have meant a great deal to her. Over the course of her long life, she has researched more than 400,000 names in her genealogy — all the way back to the 1600s.

“You need a home and food, but your attention should be on raising a good family.”

Now that she’s the only surviving member of her immediate family, her genealogical research helps her feel connected to previous generations. Three days a week, even now, she gets on the bus to do painstaking research on microfilm at the Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.

Some of the credit for her long life goes to keeping herself physically active and following a healthy (though some would say monotonous) diet. She eats the same thing every day: oatmeal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and carrots, potatoes, and meatloaf or chicken for dinner. No snacks in between. Nor has she ever drunk alcohol or coffee or smoked a cigarette. Although she does take a couple of vitamins, she has no regular medications and sees no need for checkups with a doctor.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Centenarians in U.S.” source=]In total numbers, the United States has the most centenarians of other nations, with current estimates as high as 72,000. If the population of centenarians continues to increase at its current rate, there could be close to 1 million people of 100 years of age or more by 2050 living in the U.S.[/lz_bulleted_list]

Rosenhan has also never had a driver’s license. Everywhere she needed to go, she used public transportation or good, old-fashioned walking.

Therein lies the secret of her long life: consistent nutrition, physical activity, and healthy relationships — all helped along by a substantial dose of do-it-yourself grit.

As the seventh child of German immigrants, Rosenhan has known her fair share of tragedy. Her family took in wounded soldiers during World War II as a way to make financial ends meet. But one Christmas during the war, her mother gave birth to a sickly baby boy. He died shortly after birth. The following spring, her father also passed away.

Rosenhan says she used to walk past her mother’s room at night and see her sitting on her bed, holding a doll in her arms and rocking it back and forth. But with eight other children to care for, her mother had no other option but to push on. So they did.

In a modern era full of bare-your-soul social media, Rosenhan’s grit and reserve in the face of troubling times carries a powerful lesson in mental fortitude. She was born during World War I and survived the flu epidemic and the Great Depression. She came of age during World War II, and she lived through the entirety of the Cold War. When it comes to offering advice to the rising generation, Rosenhan says, “Keep things simple.”

Related: Centenarian Surge Lies Ahead

Get an education. Find a good job. “They think too much about material things,” she says. “You need a home, and you need food, but your attention should be on raising a good family.”

She says that getting too wrapped up in sports and technology distracts people from the most important aspects of life.

And you can’t argue with 101 years of wisdom.

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