LYNN — Possibly the oldest person in the country, 116-year-old Dorrisile Dervis, lives right in town and spends her days surrounded by family.
Dervis is a Haitian immigrant — she came to the United States by boat in the late 1970s. She’s not yet a U.S. citizen, but her family is in the process of applying for citizenship for her, according to Angelet Dorvilas-Gedeon, a granddaughter of Dervis.
Dervis was born on Dec. 25, 1901, according to her family. She was issued an official citation from the city of Lynn last Dec. 24, in recognition of her 116th birthday. Every year, the family throws Dervis a big birthday party.
“Every year is exciting for us — every single year, everyday,” said Dorvilas-Gedeon. “She’s a blessing for us. At this age, you never know. We enjoy every moment. We take nothing for granted with her.”
Historical events in the United States in 1901 include the assassination of President William McKinley and the subsequent swearing in of Theodore Roosevelt as the youngest person to serve as president. In that year, the first games were played in baseball’s American League and the first Nobel peace prizes were awarded to Red Cross founder Jean Henri Dunant and peace activist Frederic Passy.
When Dervis was a little girl growing up in Haiti, five cents at the market would buy enough food to feed the family, according to Dorvilas-Gedeon.
According to the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, which tracks supercentenarians, or people older than 110 years old, the oldest American is 114-year-old Delphine Gibson, who lives in Pennsylvania. The oldest person in the world, according to the database, is 117-year-old Nabi Tajima from Japan. The list shows there are 38 living supercentenarians around the world, which includes 37 women.
Her age, if it could be verified, would make Dervis the oldest person in the country, but the only birth certificate for Dervis the family has is one issued by the Haitian government in 2014. Dorvilas-Gedeon said her grandmother’s original birth certificate was lost.
Robert Young, of Gerontology Research Group, told WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station, last year that age verification would require a document much closer to 1901. He spoke with the station last June about Dervis’ claim — Dervis was living in Florida at the time.
Dorvilas-Gedeon added that Dervis is not the only person in their family to live to such an advanced age. Dervis’ mother lived to be 120 years old, according to Dorvilas-Gedeon. She said her grandfather’s sister (the sister of Dervis’ husband) died at 112 and one of her aunts died at almost 100. Dervis’ oldest son died at 90 about six years ago and another one of her daughters is now in her 90s.
Dervis had 10 children, four of whom are still living. Her 68-year-old daughter Angelina Joseph (Dorvilas-Gedeon’s mother) lives with her in Lynn. Dorvilas-Gedeon said she took in her mother and grandmother in November after Joseph had a stroke. Previously, Joseph had been taking care of her mother in Florida.
According to Dorvilas-Gedeon, her grandmother has too many grandchildren and great-grandchildren to count, citing each at more than 50. She also has at least six great-great grandchildren, but that figure was also unclear. Dorvilas-Gedeon’s children, Carter, 4, and Oliviah, 6, and her niece, Kyandra Dorlean, 13, account for three of those great-great grandchildren.
Days with Dervis are full of ups and downs, as she is relatively healthy and strong, aside from dementia and anxiety, which has affected her ability to communicate.
As Dervis has her birthday on Christmas, it may not come as a surprise to some that God is very important to her. Up until last year, she was able to go to church regularly.
As far as secrets to longevity, Dorvilas-Gedeon said her grandmother doesn’t follow any sort of special diet. She said her grandmother would say her secret has been to respect everybody and don’t do anybody wrong — if you do that, you’ll live a long life, Dorvilas-Gedeon said. Family has always been very important to her grandmother, she said, adding Dervis used to take care of her when she was younger.
“I believe she’s here for a purpose,” Dorvilas-Gedeon said.