Many seniors ages 80 and older are relegated to living in assisted-living housing or nursing homes because they are unable to care for themselves any longer, or at least need some help with everyday chores.
But sisters Susie Odell and Kathleen Hayes prefer their living arrangement: Sharing a two-bedroom home in the Chicopee community in South Hall with some assistance from family and friends. And both women — Odell, who is 100 and mostly blind and Hayes who is 94 and mostly deaf — are perfectly content to remain that way for years to come.
“She cooks!” Kathleen said loudly and pointed at her sister sitting across from her in their living room Monday. “She cooks good. It’s delicious.”
As if on cue, Susie chimed in with her own comment.
“And she does the vacuuming,” Susie said. “And she pulls off the (couch) cushions to clean under them. She does a real good job. She’s very thorough.”
For 15 years, the sisters have developed a symbiotic relationship inside Kathleen’s home of 50 years. And the situation has worked from the beginning when Kathleen asked Susie to move in following the death of their younger sister, Sarah. Susie and Sarah had been sharing a home in Norcross.
“I didn’t want to live by myself,” Kathleen said emphatically.
“It’s fun,” the 100-year-old woman said.
The two sisters’ dependence on each other is apparent to friends and family.
“They take care of each other,” said Kathleen’s daughter-in-law, Bernadette. “A lot of people their age can’t.”
Friend and fellow Chicopee United Methodist Church member Kay Adams concurred.
“Miss Susie is the only one to use the phone, because she can hear,” Adams said, noting Susie needs help since she suffers from macular degeneration, which has left her unable to see well even with the aid of glasses.
“I can hear, though,” Susie said. “And (Kathleen) can read the mail. I can read numbers, but I can’t read letters.”
Kathleen, therefore, watches more television than her sister. And Susie prefers to listen to the radio.
“Mrs. Hayes like tennis,” Bernadette Hayes said, adding the two have a 50-inch television in their home, which allows Susie to see the screen.
“And Aunt Susie loves to listen to the radio,” she continued.
In fact, a radio is in every room of the house, including the bathroom and on the porch. Susie said she tunes into Joel and BJ Williams every morning on WDUN.
“She’s always on top of things,” Hayes said. “It keeps her mind sharp.”
Susie shares her current events knowledge with her sister.
“She keeps me informed,” Kathleen said.
Relying on others
While the sisters help each other inside the home, they rely on the kindness of family and friends to travel around town. Bernadette Hayes said church members such as Adams and Deborah Jarrard-Day visit the women on a regular basis and transport them around town.
“They are their support system,” Bernadette Hayes said.
That support system was quite apparent at Susie’s 100th birthday party Sunday afternoon at Chicopee UMC. More than 100 friends and family dropped in to see Susie on Aug. 16 at the church. More than 100 birthday cards were delivered to the woman wearing a tiara.
In fact, most of Susie and Kathleen’s family traveled en mass from all across Georgia to celebrate Susie’s birthday. And while the birthday girl was the reason for the celebration, her sister was seated next to her and accepted the well-wishes and hugs from the many visitors.
“Kathleen is always a very kind person, and I love her,” Susie said.
“(Susie) knows how to do everything and she knows everything,” Kathleen said.
Growing a bond
The women were born and raised in Gainesville. Susie is the oldest of the siblings.
Their brother, Edward, was second in line followed by Kathleen. Rounding out the quartet was Sarah. All of them grew up in Gainesville and experienced the tragic tornado of 1936.
On that fateful day, Susie was working at a McLellan’s, a 5-and-10-cent store in downtown Gainesville. She and another girl had traversed the stairs to the stockroom on the second floor to collect some supplies. As they were searching, the lights went out.
“We really didn’t know what was happening,” she said, adding she and the other employee rushed down the stairs to the main floor.
They huddled there with children who had taken cover in the store on their way to the high school. After the danger passed, Susie, then 19, and her co-workers opened the doors to see a horrific sight. Buildings were toppled over, the hardware store was on fire and the second floor of McLellan’s was gone.
“If we had not gone downstairs, I wouldn’t be here,” Susie said.
She also witnessed the destruction left in the tornado’s wake.
“People were stepping on live wires,” she said, recalling the tragedy. “So many people were killed. That tornado was devastating.”
There are other tragic memories she does not wish to recall. In the later 1940s, Susie and her husband, Horace, had their first child. The young boy, however, died a short time later.
The woman could not remember the year her mother, Annie, died. But she knows the date.
“It was Feb. 14,” she said. “But I just wiped that year from my mind.”
Susie said she moved in with her mother after Horace died. Following her mother’s death, she moved to Florida to live near her daughter, Johnnie Sue.
“Johnnie Sue always wanted to live in Florida,” she said. “So I lived in Orange City and she lived in Daytona.”
After a stint, the pair moved back to Georgia. And Johnnie Sue died of breast cancer in 1992.
“I try not to think about that,” she said matter-of-factly.
Recalling the good times
Despite these sorrowful times of her life, Susie recalls the happier ones associated with her loved ones.
During her birthday party, Susie spoke lovingly of her mother.
“Our mother was real pretty when she was young,” Susie said as she picked up the black-and-white photo of her mother.
Susie then quickly recalled a story about her mother’s involvement with the parent-teacher association. Susie said when she was in the third grade, the mothers of the children in the two classes played a baseball game.
“My mother made a home run,” she said. “And she was called ‘Home Run Annie.’”
The 100-year-old then crinkled into laughter.
Susie can also recall the times when she worked at a day care center while she and Horace lived in Oakwood.
“I loved it,” Susie said, noting she was employed there until retiring at 70 years old. “I loved the kids. I could tell you some stories.”
One of those stories involved one little girl whose father occasionally donned the Smokey the Bear costume to teach children about forest fires.
“He said that she had never seen him in (the outfit),” Susie said. “So when he came to the center in it and started talking, she jumped up and said ‘That’s my Daddy!’ It was one of the funniest things.”
Caring for children is second nature for Susie. Her nephew Earl Odell can attest to that.
“She took me in when I was 6 or 7,” Odell said, explaining his mother had died and his father worked. “She’s like another mother.”
Earl Odell said he lived with Susie and her family for three to four years. He then returned to his father’s care when he remarried a woman named Helen.
Susie accepted the new woman in her brother-in-law’s and nephew’s life.
Helen, who will turn 100 next month, attended Susie’s party. The two woman, as well as Kathleen, chatted like old school girls, only to be interrupted by people wishing Susie a happy birthday.
A lasting impression
Susie and Kathleen’s demeanors affect those who come into contact in the community.
Adams said the last time she took the two women to the Oakwood restaurant Loretta’s Country Kitchen, a man sitting near them overheard their conversation. Apparently he was so entertained, he paid for their meal.
“That kind of thing happens to them,” Adams said. “People notice them and are impressed by them.”
The sisters’ attitudes on life also impress their family members. Boyle Odell described his Aunt Susie as a happy person all of her life.
“She got along with everybody,” Odell said. “She is always smiling and never complains.”
That is complemented by the sisters’ giving nature.
Adams said she had been attending the church for a while and would sweat during the service. Miss Susie noticed and brought her a fan.
“I use it every Sunday,” she said, noting it shows how much the women care for others. “I want to be like her and Kathleen when I grow up.”
The women, however, don’t know how they have lasted this long.
“I just made it,” Susie said. “It’s heavenly days and taking one day at time.”