Juana Yulfo, left, and Janet Fischer shared an embrace at Yulfo’s 106th birthday party on Monday.
By Jennifer Milne
Juana Yulfo peered through her pale blue eyes at the photographer who was taking her birthday portrait. She folded her thin hands across her lap and cocked her head slightly to the side. For Yulfo, who recently turned 106, her portrait captured more than a century of life, spread across two countries and many friends.
Yulfo was born July 5, 1901, in Aguadilla, a city in the northwestern tip of Puerto Rico. She worked as a house cleaner and babysitter until she was able to save enough money to move to Brooklyn in the 1950s, then to the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side in 1966. Yulfo said she chose the Lower East Side because she felt at home in its heavily Hispanic community.
“I liked this area [the Lower East Side] a lot because I liked a lot of the people,” she said in Spanish, through a translator. “They were very supportive. I was offered other places to live, but I turned them down.”
Upon settling in Vladeck, Yulfo sent for her daughter and settled into her new home. Now in her 80s, her daughter lives in West Midtown.
Nowadays, Yulfo’s apartment at Vladeck is abuzz with activity as cooks, nurses, physical therapists and case workers shuttle in and out of her apartment to assist her, 24 hours a day.
“We’ve got a whole team working with her,” said Janet Fischer, chief administrator of the NORC, or naturally occurring retirement community, in which Yulfo lives. “She’s here because of the care we provide. We’re her family.” Over the past 10 years, Fischer and Yulfo have become close friends.
A NORC occurs when elderly residents, with the help of supportive services, continue to live in their own apartments, instead of moving to nursing homes. The Vladeck Houses’ NORC is sponsored by Henry Street Settlement, and all of Yulfo’s care expenses are paid for by Medicaid.
“She’s 106 years old and living in her own apartment,” Fischer said. “That’s less money for society. It’s a win-win situation.”
The centenarian’s one-bedroom apartment is clean, but sparse. The centerpiece of the living room is a poster of Puerto Rico, showing a bright blue sky, palm trees and two thatched-roof huts. The last time Yulfo visited her homeland, she was in her late 60s or 70s she doesn’t quite remember.
Her kitchen was steamy, with the smell of freshly cooked food in the air, but that didn’t stop Yulfo from requesting a serving of arroz con gandules, or pigeon peas with rice, a favorite Puerto Rican dish.
Martha Nieves, Yulfo’s chief case manager, helped her into a pale pink blazer for her photos and brushed her thin gray hair back into a small bun. Nieves pushed Yulfo’s wheelchair close to her window to allow the rose-colored light shining through the floral curtains to hit her face. During the photo session, Yulfo and her attendants joked about beauty tips and Yulfo’s secret to such a long life: “Behaving,” Yulfo said with a grin.
“She’s sharp,” Nieves said, recounting how Yulfo figured out, by herself, how to exercise her muscles by standing on the tips of her toes. “She just physically became frail.”
After the photos had been taken, Yulfo was wheeled downstairs into the Good Companions Senior Center at 334 Madison St. for a surprise birthday party in her honor and a proclamation from Alan Gerson, the city councilmember for District 1.
“This is what New York City is all about,” Gerson said, while handing Yulfo the framed proclamation and wishing her many birthdays to come. “People coming together to celebrate our community.”
At Yulfo’s party, a guitarist played “Guantanamera,” a traditional Cuban song, and the audience sang along and clapped with the rhythm. Following the performance, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Yulfo while they gathered around her wheelchair.
Yulfo’s 106th birthday found her still going strong, with a great sense of humor. Yulfo joked earlier in the day that her neighbors thought she was dead until she came out of her building.
“‘You’re still alive!’ they said when I came downstairs,” she quipped. “I said ‘Of course I’m still alive!’”
As Fischer, Nieves and Yulfo’s other care workers gathered around her for one big “family” portrait, Fischer recalled the great times she’s spent with Yulfo and smiled at the elderly woman’s strong will.
“Life is by her rules,” Fischer said.