In 1984, Lavina “Bonnie” Grosshuesch and her husband were staying at a hotel in Baguio, Philippines when they awoke to rushed footsteps in the hallway.

They realized that the hotel was on fire, and that it had spread to the hallway on their floor. Grosshuesch’s husband grabbed the curtains in the room and tied them together.

Using the curtain rope, they climbed onto a nearby roof away from the blaze. The flames were spouting from their room’s window, and within minutes, the hotel burned to the ground. Two of their friends from California died that night.

The couple was attending a soldiers’ reunion commemorating those who served during World War II in the Philippines, where her husband served for three years. 

It’s a story she still tells at 102 years-old.

“He almost pushed me out the window because I didn’t think that was the way to go,” Grosshuesch said, chuckling, “After we got home, we stayed home pretty close.”

Grosshuesch was one of 140 whose names were submitted to the 51st annual Governor’s Conference on Aging that started on Tuesday at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center. Those who are 100 years-old and older are known as centenarians. The oldest members of the group are two individuals aged 110, who are also known as supercentenarians.

All those who submit their information will receive a recognition proclamation from Gov. Steve Bullock.

The conference’s goal is to raise the public’s awareness of the state’s current senior population, providing lifestyle choices and alternatives for the baby boomer generation, which started turning 65 in 2011.

Sheila Hogan, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said that the Senior and Long Term Care Division works with 10 area agents across Montana to develop nutritional programs, legal services, and care-giver support, and to offer information and referral services. They administer multiple programs, like the Montana Big Sky Waiver Program and the Community First Choice and Personal Assistance Services programs.

In 2015, about 17% of Montana’s population was over the age of 65. In 2020, it’s expected to rise to 20%.

“One of my highest priorities at DPHHS … is to make sure we can provide the best services we can to take care of the people who have taken care of us,” Hogan said during the Centenarian Banquet on Tuesday.

Hogan said that elder abuse is a national issue, and that 1 out of 10 older Americans are victims of neglect or financial exploitation. DPHHS received a three-year grant to sustain the Montana Lifespan Respite program, which funds temporary assistance that relieves primary caregivers.

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The conference is scheduled from Sept. 24 to Sept. 26 at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center and includes experts and keynote speakers addressing subjects like Alzheimer's research, Medicare changes, opioids, and other resources. 

Helen Reidelbach, 102, sat with her family at the banquet and talked about growing up during the Great Depression and WWII.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Reidelbach said when asked what it was like living during the war. Life during the Depression was a different story.

“We didn’t have no jobs, and we hardly had any food to eat,” she said. “We got lard, sugar, and coffee. We had to have coupons to get them.”

Reidelbach worked cleaning, painting, wallpapering houses, and giving care to other families.

In Joliet, her family lived in a box-car-turned-house and later built a log cabin in Red Lodge in 1942. It’s still there today.

After they sold the cabin, Reidelbach and her family stayed in a tent while building a cinder block home. She’d cook outside, rain or shine. One morning, there were six inches of snow on the ground.

When asked what advice she would give to others about living a long life, she answered, “Hard work and do your own cooking.”

“None of that already-made stuff,” she said.

Bernard “Barney” Myers, 109, taught math at Senior High School in Billings for 38 years. He coached football, basketball, track and cross country, helping to lead five state champion cross country teams.

He was married to his wife, Bess, for 63 years. He has three daughters, eight grandchildren, several great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

One of his fondest memories is of riding his motorcycle up Pikes Peak in Colorado.

“Take it one day at a time,” Myers said.

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