Portrait of a long life: faith, friends, and a few laps

For centenarian Helen Camerota, a long life is a full life: she still cooks for crowds and drives

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
At 100, Helen Camerota's long life has always included friends and faith. "One thing I’ve realized at 100," says the centenarian, "is that life today is too fast ... and you don’t get a chance to relax. Everyone’s in a rush.... Little children ... don’t enjoy their childhoods."

The telephone rings in Helen Camerota's waterfront condo and the disappointing news is that Maintenance has turned off the pool heater – her swimming ritual of 20 laps is off for the day.

The good news? Mrs. Camerota, who turned 100 in February, isn't short of options for the day. She might drive to the market to pick up ingredients for meatballs, pizza, or gnocchi – after all, friends often drop by for a home-cooked Italian meal, the kind her own immigrant parents used to serve. Or she could head down to the clubhouse for a few hands of bridge or to play a card of bingo, all activities she enjoys regularly.

"I wake up every morning and the first thing I think of is going for my swim," she says. "It leaves me feeling great for the day."

But a change in her familiar routine simply doesn't throw this slightly built yet disproportionately resolute woman for a loop – she's ready for anything. Age has proved no barrier for Camerota, who until just a year or so ago would charitably drive far younger neighbors to their own doctors' appointments.

Betty Barnes, a friend for two decades, notes that Camerota helps serve food at condo coffees: "You'd think at 100 she should be the one sitting down being served. She's just a wonderful, lively, active woman who throws herself into so many activities."

There is an air of tranquility about Camerota, who says that a crucial part of her lengthy life is not rushing: "One thing I've realized at 100 is that life today is too fast, it's go, go, go and you don't get a chance to relax. Everyone's in a rush, they don't stop to smell the roses. Little children are raised so fast, they cram their heads and they don't enjoy their childhoods. I don't like it."

The slower pace in her seniors' complex is a perfect match for the gregarious Camerota, who moved south with her driving-instructor husband, Louis, when he retired 40 years ago. She has lived alone since he died in 1992.

To many neighbors she's an "honorary mother" when her kids Anthony, Ciro, Louis, and Maria – senior citizens, themselves – and nine grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-granddaughter can't be with her.

The ambience here, and the temperate winters, keep her feeling young and healthy, she says, 50 years after surviving breast cancer and almost 20 since hip-replacement surgery.

More than 100 "very good friends" attended Camerota's 100th birthday party, where she demonstrated traditional Italian dance steps.

Exercise and faith, she says, are two other important facets of her life: She says the rosary every day and is probably the oldest of the many seniors attending mass every Sunday.

But she says there's no secret to living well for so long: "God continues to be good to me. I have been lucky to live a full life, and that God gives me the strength to enjoy every day."

[Editor's note: The original photo caption misstated Helen Camerota's age.]

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