In her 100 years of living, nothing has slowed down Alma Gilleo.
She carved out a career in publishing at a time when few women worked in the field.
She traveled widely.
And she cared deeply, often ministering to others.
So when it came time to celebrate her 100th birthday, her family and caregivers couldn’t let a pandemic spoil the fun.
Alma celebrated her big day in the fresh air and sunshine outside Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center.
Sitting in her wheelchair, Alma smiled up at the gathering of friends and family members. Although well-wishers kept a social distance because of COVID-19 concerns, they surrounded her with a colorful assortment of pinwheels, signs and balloons.
“She has always been amazing,” said her niece, Sandra DeVries. “She has always been super intelligent. She has accomplished a lot in life and she always has been such a giving person.”
Asked her secret to a long life, Alma had no tips to share.
“I’m surprised as anyone that I made it this far,” she said.
Longevity might run in the family. Her mother lived to the age of 102.
Even as she turns 100, Alma does not focus on the past. She is too busy planning for the future.
Still an avid reader, she has two books in progress: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and “Shiloh Autumn” by Bodie and Brock Thoene.
She recently took up painting, through an expressive arts class at the Rehab and Nursing Center.
“She’s always trying to get things perfect,” said Maria Chase, recreation therapy coordinator. “She is a little hard on herself, but she’s always wanting to learn. She is a forever student.”
She enters the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes regularly and is sure she will win a prize some day.
After receiving a book for Christmas about Bonsai trees, she looks forward to growing one.
“She just does not think about dying,” Sandra said. “She still makes plans for the future. She is always saying, ‘I will do this project, and I will do that project.’”
100 years of change
Sandra brought to the party a display showing photos of Alma through the years, including pictures taken on a trip to Spain and Morocco in 1970.
And she talked about her aunt’s remarkable history.
Alma was born on June 10, 1920—at the beginning of the roaring ’20s. That’s the year Warren G. Harding was elected president, Prohibition began, and women won the right to vote in the U.S.
Although named Verda Louise Gilleo, her family and friends have always called her Alma. She grew up on the east side of Michigan, the oldest of six children.
As an adult, she moved to Chicago and worked in publishing as an editor and writer of educational materials. She also authored several books.
She remained single, but stayed close to her younger siblings, nieces and nephews, often sending them cards and letters.
Alma dedicated much of her time in church activities serving others. She took part in a prison ministry, in which she led devotional studies through the mail with inmates.
When Alma’s mother became older, she moved in with Alma.
“She took care of her mother for 25 years or more,” Sandra said. “She never complained once about that. She counted that as a joy. She loved her mom so much.”
About five years ago, Alma moved to the Rehab and Nursing Center in Grand Rapids—close to Sandra and her family.
She quickly endeared herself to her caregivers.
“The staff loves her,” Chase said. “She has made some good friends.”
Alma signed up as a resident volunteer and began to visit and read to other residents.
“She still has a heart for wanting to do some good in the world,” Sandra said.
A visit with her sister
After Alma’s outdoor party wrapped up, the celebration continued indoors.
As Alma emerged from the elevator on her floor, she saw the hall lined with residents and staff members, cheering, clapping and singing happy birthday.
Later that afternoon, her care team had one more celebration in store.
Chase arranged for Alma to see her 93-year-old sister, Helen Chandler, in a virtual visit.
Helen, who is Sandra’s mother and Alma’s only surviving sibling, lives in an assisted living center and couldn’t attend the birthday party. But the two enjoyed an hourlong online visit with each other.
Alma beamed throughout the festivities.
And the celebration warmed the hearts of Alma’s care team, as well.
“This is pretty special for us,” Chase said. “We are excited we can do all of this for her birthday. It feels really good.”