GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador – At 100 years old, she became bedridden and so weakened from a stomach ailment that a priest administered last rites. But Maria Esther de Capovilla recovered, and 16 years later she has become the oldest person on Earth, according to Guinness World Records.
Born on Sept. 14, 1889, the same year as Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, Capovilla was married the year the United States entered World War I — 1917 — and widowed in 1949.
"We see the condition she is in, and what is admirable is not only that she reached this age, but that she got here in this shape, in very good health," Capovilla's daughter, Irma, told an Associated Press reporter at the home where her mother lives in this coastal city.
Seated on a sofa and waving a fan with a slender, steady hand in the tropical heat, Capovilla seemed bemused by the presence of strangers. Irma, 79, leaned close to her mother's ear, and speaking in a loud voice, told her she was famous because she was the world's oldest person.
Capovilla shook her head and smiled.
Her calm disposition may be the secret to her longevity, her daughter said.
"She always had a very tranquil character," Irma said. "She does not get upset by anything. She takes things very calmly and she has been that way her whole life."
Capovilla, who comes from a well-to-do family, was confirmed as the oldest person on Dec. 9, after her family sent details of her birth and marriage certificates to the British-based publisher. She takes the oldest person title from 115-year-old American Elizabeth Bolden, Guinness World Records said in a statement e-mailed to AP.
Emiliano Mercado Del Toro, of Puerto Rico, retains the title as oldest man, at 114.
The oldest person ever whose age was authenticated, according to Guinness, was a woman named Jeanne Louise Calment, who lived to 122 years and 164 days. She was born in France on Feb. 21, 1875, and died at a nursing home in Arles in southern France on Aug. 4, 1997.
Three of Capovilla's five children — daughters Irma and Hilda, 81, and son Anibal, 77, — are still alive, along with 10 of her 11 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren, the last of whom was born in February 2003.
In her youth, Capovilla liked to embroider, paint, play piano and dance the waltz at parties, the family said. She also visited a nearby plantation, where she would drink fresh donkey and cow milk.
She always ate three meals a day and never smoked or drank hard liquor — "only a small cup of wine with lunch and nothing more," Irma said.
For the past 20 years, Capovilla has lived with her elder daughter, Hilda, and son-in-law, Martin.
Fervently religious, Capovilla says her prayers daily, takes communion every Friday and always joins the family for meals, enjoying lentils and chicken for lunch, which she eats unassisted with fork and knife in small bites, Irma said.
At night, she has coffee with hot milk and bread with cheese or jam, and she says she can't do without something sweet: gelatin, ice cream or cake.
Capovilla still likes to watch television and reads newspaper headlines, with some difficulty, but never with glasses. She has not been able to leave the house in nearly two years. A home assistant helps her walk without the aid of a cane or wheelchair.
In recent years, her family said, she has become less communicative as her hearing worsened and her memory has started to fade. "Her memory is not bad. She remembers many things, but not everything. She is not 100 percent lucid," said Irma.
Irma and Hilda showed Capovilla a portrait of their father, an Austrian sailor who came to Ecuador in 1910. After peering intently for a moment, Capovilla recognized the image.
"It is Antonio Capovilla," she said.
"I was at the plantation Josefina and they brought a friend," she said, explaining in a soft voice how she was introduced to the man who would become her husband.