Life After 100

Montana centenarians honored at governor’s conference on aging

By Tristan Scott
Lon Baertsch pins a flower on his father Oscar Baertsch during the Centenarian Luncheon at the 49th annual Governor’s Conference on Aging on Sept. 7, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

One hundred years ago, the United States was in the midst of the Great War. The average life expectancy was 48 for a man and 51.1 for a woman; $1 could buy two gallons of milk, a dozen eggs and a pound of coffee; and less than half of the nation’s population lived in urban areas.

“It’s amazing to think of all the changes our centenarians have witnessed over the last century or more,” Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said, addressing an audience gathered for the 49th annual Governor’s Conference on Aging at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell.

Go back in time a century, and fans of the University of Montana football program will be disappointed — the 1917 Griz won just a single game during their season at Dornblaser Field. That same year, the first two women were elected to Montana’s state legislature, Maggie Smith Hathaway and Emma Ingalls, while just 670,000 people occupied the Treasure State.

It’s a bygone era, to be sure.

But for a clutch of western Montana centenarians, it was the era they were born into, and on Sept. 7 they were honored for their longevity.

A group of 11 Montana residents who are 100 years or older gathered for the conference this week, an event sponsored by the Department of Public Health and Human Services to recognize the achievements of Montana’s senior population, as well as the pressures that the graying of the state places on the demand for medical services.

According to the DPHHS, in 2025, Montana is expected to be home to more than 3,000 residents over the age of 100, up from 175 in 2010.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 53,300 centenarians were living in the United States in 2010, compared to around 32,000 in 1980. What used to be unusual, living to be 100 years old, is expected to become increasingly common as modern science continues to develop methods for treating diseases, optimizing health and identifying genes that affect longevity.

Oscar Baertsch, age 102, of Polson, still lives in the home he built on the south end of Flathead Lake, and jokingly attributed his longevity to a strict regimen of whiskey, cigarettes, Copenhagen, and hard work. (In reality, he chalks it up to hereditary luck, noting that several family members lived well into their 90s).

On Aug. 17, Helen Self, of Missoula, celebrated her 108th birthday with little fanfare, but recalls marking her 100th milestone with a Harley Davidson motorcycle ride.

Self still lives at home with her granddaughter, Diane Gunter, a licensed foster parent, and several children. Gunter is a small business owner, and has been a licensed foster parent since 1988. Self has lived with Gunter since 2001, and until last year it was Self who handled a majority of the cooking for the household.

Cooney noted that Self’s story will become more commonplace as people continue living longer, and said the governor’s office is committed to making the challenges of dementia and Alzheimer’s in Montana’s senior population a priority.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.