Jimmy Carter marks 1 year in hospice: 4 longevity lessons ahead of his 100th birthday

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Jimmy Carter, the longest living president in the nation’s history, is marking one year in hospice — defying expectations for how long he'd live when he first began comfort care.

Carter, who is a cancer survivor and had suffered a series of falls in recent years, decided to spend “his remaining time at home with his family” in Plains, Georgia, foregoing additional medical intervention after several hospital stays, The Carter Center announced on Feb. 18, 2023.

Since then, he's made a couple of rare public appearances, including traveling to Atlanta to attend the memorial for his late wife, Rosalynn Carter, on Nov. 28, 2023.

The Carter Center declined to comment about how the former president is doing today.

“One year after entering hospice care, President Carter continues to be at home with his family," his loved ones said in a statement to TODAY.com.

"The Carter family is grateful for the many expressions of love they have received and the continued respect for their privacy during this time. The family is pleased that his decision last year to enter hospice care has sparked so many family discussions across the country on an important subject.”

How old is Jimmy Carter?

Carter is 99. His 100th birthday is on Oct. 1, 2024.

When he entered hospice a year ago, his family was preparing for his life to end within a week, but he keeps going.

“We thought at the beginning of this process that it was going to be in five or so days,” Jason Carter, his grandson, told The New York Times in September 2023.

“I was down there with him in the hospital and then said goodbye. And then we thought it was going to be in that week that it was coming to the end. And it’s just now been seven months.”

He was “still very much Jimmy Carter" in August 2023, another grandson told The New York Times that month.

“He’s still opinionated, he’s still strong-willed, he’s still him. And that’s great to see," Josh Carter said.

A week before Carter turned 99 a birthday that his family was “surprised and thankful” to be able to celebrate, Josh Carter noted the former president made an appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival in Georgia, riding in a car with his wife, Rosalynn, on a beautiful fall day. He still likes peanut butter ice cream, The Carter Center posted on X at the time.

Why he's living longer than expected in hospice

Such small joys are “invaluable” to keep a terminally ill patient going, says Dr. BJ Miller, a hospice and palliative medicine physician in San Francisco. He is not treating Carter.

"It’s important for the world to see how hospice should go, and that it’s not a scary thing. It’s not about death — it really is about living until you die. I’m glad for (Carter) to be making this example,” Miller tells TODAY.com.

Patients go into hospice when doctors believe they have six months or less to live, he notes. They’re no longer trying to “push back on the illness,” so the focus becomes comfort care to ease any suffering, Miller adds. That includes medicine to alleviate pain, nausea or anxiety.

It also means emotional support for the patient and their family, talking things through and trying to find meaning in their remaining time.

But it’s “not rare” that people live longer in hospice care than expected, like Carter, Miller says. He’s seen it many times in his own practice.

It’s very difficult for doctors to pinpoint how much time a terminally ill patient has left, so they’re always guessing, Miller notes.

Another reason is that hospice care can be a relief for a patient who’s been in and out of the hospital receiving aggressive medical treatment and taking countless medications.

“At some point, a lot of that effort can be fatiguing on the body, certainly emotionally draining and sometimes even demoralizing,” Miller says.

“(In hospice), you’re no longer being pulled all over the place to try this or that treatment. Finally, there’s some peace. Finally, there’s someone listening to your symptoms. And finally, you get to stay home and the care is coming to you.”

Sometimes people live longer in hospice than they would otherwise because of that “loving, de-stressing support,” he notes.

Carter's longevity habits

Carter is the first president to live until 95 or older and the only one to live to see the 40th anniversary of his inauguration.

Genes can play a role in longevity, but Carter has a complicated family medical history. His mother lived to be 85, but his father died at 58 of pancreatic cancer. Both his sisters and his brother also died of pancreatic cancer, and his mother had the disease as well, NBC News reported.

In 2015, Carter was diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain. He received immunotherapy treatments and scans showed no evidence of the cancer within months. In 2019, he had a series of falls that led to broken bones and required surgery.

Still, the former president made it to 99. Here are some of his healthy longevity habits:

Sense of purpose

Carter and his wife had famously gotten involved in the community, helping to build, renovate and repair more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity since 1984. The work gave him joy, the former president wrote in one of his books.

Carter Habitat for Humanity (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun  / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Carter Habitat for Humanity (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“Community involvement tells you that you want to live, you want to help other people,” Valter Longo, Ph.D., professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Longevity Institute in Los Angeles, tells TODAY.com.

“You have a reason to keep doing all the things that you need to do,” he notes, like going to the doctor, eating a healthy diet and exercising. “In the end, (it’s) whatever gets you out of bed.

Volunteering helps people stay engaged with others and contribute, Miller adds.

“You need to put love into the world and care in the world. And that, too, is a lifeblood,” he says.

Strong family ties

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were married for 77 years — the longest-married couple in presidential history. Carter called it “a full partnership.”

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Carter said in a statement when she died on Nov. 19, 2023. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

During Rosalynn Carter’s tribute service on Nov. 28, 2023, the couple's daughter, Amy Carter, read a love letter the former president had written to his wife 75 years ago.

“My darling, every time I have ever been away from you, I have been thrilled when I returned to discover just how wonderful you are. While I am away, I try to convince myself that you really are not, could not be as sweet and beautiful as I remember. But when I see you, I fall in love with you all over again," part of the letter read.

Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren complete the tight-knit family.

Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn at Atlanta Falcons game in 2018 (Scott Cunningham / Getty Images)
Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn at Atlanta Falcons game in 2018 (Scott Cunningham / Getty Images)

Committing to a life partner, caring for children and putting family first is a key part of longevity, researchers studying the Blue Zones, places around the world where people live long lives, have found.

It’s important to be part of a loving connection, though it doesn't have to be a marriage per se — it can be a spouse, but also a sibling, a friend or any relationship where a person feels seen and heard, Miller says.

On the flip side, Longo has also seen many centenarians display extraordinary resilience when it comes to marital status.

Some are "warriors of longevity and nothing bothers them — whether they are alone or with somebody,” he notes. “They’ll say, ‘I find happiness in lots of other things.'”

Regular exercise

Carter was an avid runner until he was 80 and developed knee problems, so he switched to swimming and walking, he told The Washington Post in 2013 and 2018.

He and Mrs. Carter liked to ride bikes in their hometown as well as on trips across the country and abroad. The former president also enjoys fly-fishing and woodworking, according to his biography.

Exercise affects every cell in the body and is vital for good health, experts say.

Faith

Since leaving the White House in 1981 until 2020, Carter regularly taught Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where he and his wife attended services.

“Our religious beliefs are important to us,” the former president wrote in one of his books.

Just like having a sense of purpose, religion can help people do the right things for their health and keep going, Longo says.

Faith can be a source of meaning and belonging, which is good for the body and soul, Miller adds.

“We can push and prod at the body to keep going in all sorts of ways. But if there’s no spark, if there’s no reason to live, if there’s no joy in living” it won't help much, he says. "Those are essential ingredients for life."

This article was originally published on TODAY.com