Always busy, trying to help

Published February 6, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Everyone wants to know Millie Cerrone's secrets. They look at her with surprise when she tells them her age, as if, at nearly 100, she should be lying in a dark room flipping through a casket catalogue.

"I'm 96," Millie said at her retirement party Monday afternoon at Gulfside Regional Hospice in New Port Richey, where she's volunteered since 1992.

"And I'll be 97 in April," she added quickly, with a smack of pride. Everyone at the party kept talking about how Millie is an inspiration to them - for her grace, dedication, compassion and spunk. The hospice staff loves their Millie so much they're throwing her another goodbye party Wednesday.

"My friends always tell me they want to be like my mom when they grow up," said Millie's daughter, Ann Tiller, who is 69 years old. Millie has lived with Ann and son-in-law Bill in New Port Richey since her husband, Benjamin, died in 1987. In a few weeks, the three of them will be moving to Atlanta to be closer to family. Millie has two other children besides Ann, six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Millie is like a little white-haired doll and looks decades younger than her real age. She's shrunk a bit she says so now she's 4-foot-9 inches and weighs about 120 pounds. Her skin is smooth and fair. Her eyes are small and dark and glint with intelligence and humor. She only wears glasses for reading and still has the eyesight to repair tiny, intricate jewelry and to knit, crochet and sew. She has a hearing aid in her right ear, but hears well with it. She walks briskly and unaided.

Overall, Millie's in good health, apart from those three heart attacks she had more than 20 years ago. She takes a Centrum Silver multivitamin every day. She tries to not eat too much fat. She's never smoked.

What about drinking?

"She makes homemade wine in her closet," Ann said.

"It'll knock your head off," said Bill, a retired engineer.

They said one time a bottle exploded. No one was injured.

Millie said her secrets to her longevity are these:

Stay busy.

"I'm too busy to die," she said.

And the other is to not fret.

"She's like Scarlett O'Hara," Bill said. " 'I'll think about that tomorrow.' "

Millie does not let herself get into a funk. When bad things happen - such as when a hospice patient for whom she has developed a fondness dies - Millie is sad, but does not dwell. Somehow, she absorbs hurt but it does not slow her down.

The one time people noticed her sadness was when her husband, Benjamin, died after battling Alzheimer's for four years. Millie refused to let anyone care for him except herself. He died at home.

Afterward, she still forced smiles. But she was exhausted and heartbroken. Men pestered her for dates (she is beautiful) but Millie refused. She never dated another man.

But even during her mourning, Millie was always pleasant. People at the hospice can't remember seeing her when she wasn't smiling and upbeat. If she sits to watch television, she'll also knit or crochet. She really is always busy - volunteering for the hospice or her church or doing things for family or friends. She'd be on her hands and knees scrubbing floors, hauling laundry baskets and climbing ladders to clean if her daughter and son-in-law hadn't forbidden her.

Millie, who was born in New York, is sad to leave her friends in Florida, where she's lived for 50 years. But she's excited about this new chapter in her life. She told Ann she wants to buy a new bedroom suite, since she's had her old one for half a century.

She's planning on finding another hospice in Atlanta, so she can keep on volunteering.

"I just keep going," she said matter-of-factly.

When asked what part of her life made her happiest she said, without hesitation:

"All of it."

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Fast Facts:

Say goodbye to Millie Cerrone

If you know Millie and want to give her a hug before she leaves, she'll be at the Gulfside Regional Hospice Thrift Shoppe in Hudson from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday. The Hospice volunteers are throwing a party for her then, but they said it's okay for Millie's customers and friends to stop by, too. The address is 12154 U.S. 19 in Bayonet Point. The phone number is (727) 861-4900.