ATLANTA – Rosalynn Carter celebrated her 96th birthday at home Friday with her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, and other family members, while the surrounding community of Plains, Georgia, honored the former first lady's years of public health advocacy.
The latest milestone comes as Rosalynn Carter navigates dementia and the former president, now 98, continues to receive hospice care. Yet they remain together in the same small town where they were born, married and that anchored Jimmy Carter's victorious 1976 presidential campaign.
Rosalynn and her family planned a quiet celebration, according to The Carter Center, the human rights organization the pair opened in Atlanta after losing his 1980 reelection bid. She ate cupcakes and peanut butter ice cream, nodding to the couple’s experience as Georgia peanut farmers, which became part of their political branding.
She also released butterflies in the Carters' garden; her love of butterflies traces back to childhood. Extended family and friends also held butterfly releases around Plains, including at the small public garden next to the home where Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on Aug. 18, 1927.
The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers sponsored a screening of a new film, “Unconditional,” which focuses on the challenges people face as caregivers for sick, aging and disabled loved ones. The event was held at Plains High School.
Since her husband was Georgia governor in the early 1970s, Rosalynn Carter has called for a more comprehensive American health care system treating mental health as integral to overall health and recognizing the importance of caregivers to the nation’s social and economic well-being.
“Her incredible ability is to both look at a problem from the need for policy changes, and to think about the individual who lives next door or down the street and is struggling,” said Jennifer Olsen, who leads the Rosalynn Carter Institute.
Olsen noted the former first lady has pushed multiple U.S. administrations to establish an office within the Department of Health and Human Services dedicated exclusively to advocating for caregivers. The office develops specific programs to aid caregivers and analyzes all public policy — from tax provisions to labor rules and regulations — through the vantage point of people caring for loved ones.
Her emphasis on caregiving has gained new attention amid the Carters’ declining health. In February, The Carter Center announced the 39th president would forgo further hospital treatment and instead receive only end-of-life care at home. In May, the family also disclosed the former first lady has dementia, though they have not offered details about her condition.
In recent months the couple’s four children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have been a near-constant presence at the compound. Close friends and some extended family also have visited, as the couple seems to defy their age and conditions, even attending the Plains' Independence Day fireworks display in July.
The circumstances bring a sharper focus to one of Rosalynn's favorite observations, Olsen said.
“There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers,” she has said over the years.
Rosalynn Carter is the second-oldest presidential spouse in U.S. history. Bess Truman died at 97 in 1982, the year after the Carters left the White House. Jimmy Carter is the longest-lived president. The longest-married first couple in history, the Carters’ marked their 77th wedding anniversary in July.