As Rosalynn Carter turns 96 on Friday and Jimmy Carter nears 99, the couple continues to defy the odds.
Despite serious health problems — Jimmy Carter entered hospice six months ago and Rosalynn has dementia — they still spend most days sitting beside each other in the living room of the bungalow they built in 1961 in Plains, Ga. Family and friends who see them say that they enjoy some surprisingly good days and that this summer they even went for a ride with the Secret Service to watch Fourth of July fireworks in their hometown.
Jimmy Carter is often out of bed first, waiting in his recliner for his wife to emerge. “Rosalynn comes in the room and makes a beeline for this chair and bends over and kisses him,” said Jill Stuckey, a close friend. They spend many hours sitting side by side.
Jimmy Carter continues to follow the news, including criminal charges filed over former president Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election, according to family and friends. Trump was indicted again Monday, this time in Carter’s home state of Georgia, on criminal charges related to his alleged efforts to undo his loss there.
Carter, a Democrat who spent years after the White House monitoring voting and promoting fair elections around the world, has publicly criticized Trump’s attempts to thwart the democratic process. Trump, a Republican, in turn has called Carter “a terrible president.”
Jimmy Carter has now lived longer than any U.S. president. The couple’s 77-year marriage is in the presidential record books, too. Rosalynn is the second-oldest first lady in history. Bess Truman, who died at age 97, has held that record for more than four decades.
“Never count Jimmy Carter out,” said Gerald Rafshoon, who was Carter’s White House spokesman. “When he sets a goal, he gets there. ”
Rafshoon and others believe a key reason the Carters keep going is that neither wants to leave the other.
Carter has done things many thought impossible. When the young Georgia governor entered the 1976 presidential race, a headline in the Atlanta Constitution read, “Jimmy Who is Running for What?”
The former president has credited Rosalynn with helping him beat the odds. It was his unwillingness to leave Rosalynn home alone that led to his February decision to opt out of any more “medical intervention,” a close family member said. Jimmy Carter, who had survived melanoma that had spread to the brain as well as injuries from several falls, said he wouldn’t go to the hospital anymore.
When the locals in Plains, where most people know the Carters, first heard Jimmy Carter had entered hospice, many canceled trips so they would not miss his funeral.
But as weeks passed and word spread that Carter was listening to audiobooks and talking about the latest news, somber comments turned to quips about how Carter wants to set a record for how long he lives in hospice.
Still, it has not been easy for Carter. He took pride in how active he remained well into his 90s, including a daily swim, and he is physically declining.
“It can be sad,” said one close relative, who like others said they did not want to be quoted talking about the former president’s health.
Rosalynn is more mobile than her husband, who uses a wheelchair. She gets around with a walker. But the former first lady, who so often would finish her husband’s sentences about their White House days or globe-trotting travels, now struggles with recall. Three months ago, the Carter Center publicly disclosed her dementia, noting that she has been a longtime advocate for bringing greater awareness to mental health issues.
But Rosalynn has moments of clarity. Several people have heard the former first lady laugh at inside jokes and recount long-ago moments with exquisite detail in recent weeks.
She enjoys spending time with her family, said Jason Carter, the couple’s grandson. “She likes having people around and is joyful,” he said.
Although his health varies by day, Jimmy Carter remains mentally sharp. “Some days he’s talking about world events, and other days he just wants to talk about the Braves,” said Jason Carter, referring to the Atlanta Braves, the former president’s favorite baseball team.
Hugo Wentzel, the son of Amy Carter, the couple’s youngest child, last week said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that his grandfather is “really sick.” But he also said of the man he calls Papa, “he always wants to be doing something with his mind, so he’s trying to keep himself busy.”
Carter has joked about how often he is described as a better ex-president than president. With low public approval ratings after one term in the White House, Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1980. But he lived long enough to see a shift in public assessment of his presidency.
Historians are increasingly praising his early warnings on climate change, his creation of the Department of Energy, and the Camp David Accords that led to a historic peace deal between Egypt and Israel. That and a lifetime of foreign policy work earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
“I think he is gratified that people are reconsidering his presidency,” said Meredith Evans, the director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.
To mark Rosalynn’s 96th birthday, the museum’s admission price will drop Friday from the usual $12 for most adults to 96 cents. On Carter’s upcoming birthday on Oct. 1, admission will be 99 cents. The museum director said visitors often remark on the fact that the Carters have been married for 77 years but met as children. “They say, ‘Oh my goodness! That’s a long time, that’s a love story,” Evans said.
Carter, whose Secret Service name was Deacon because he is such a religious man, has said he is at peace with whatever happens next. He has seemed ready to let go at times this summer, relatives and friends said, but then he rallies.