“Make a wish, Vern!”

The Celis family fell far short of the 108 candles Verna Wirth’s birthday cake called for, but there were enough flames to set off the smoke alarm.

Such an ordinary family scene, but there’s nothing typical about the bond between this group.

Wirth, now the Celis family’s live-in grandma, was a stranger until a bold decision gave her an all-new family just as she had nowhere to turn.

Originally from Wisconsin, Wirth outlived her husband, Arthur, and twin daughters, Arlene and Eileen. Arlene died of cancer in 2012. Eileen had died several years earlier of a brain tumor.

Left with little money and no family, Wirth was placed in a nursing home by family friend Audrey Piesek, who helped pay for her care.

In 2014, the nursing home was shutting down and Piesek realised she couldn’t afford Wirth’s care much longer. Once again faced with uncertainty, Wirth found unexpected help in a caretaker she had befriended at the facility.

Wirth celebrates her 108th birthday with her new family, which includes her former caretaker Gina (right) and Edmund (left). Photo: TNS

Gina Celis offered Wirth, then 104, to live in her home and be a part of her family.

“I talked to Gina and asked what I could do, and she stepped in. She was a blessing,” Piesek said. “She’s a true angel on earth, that’s how she is. She’s just a sweetheart. I’m so lucky that she took Verna for me.”

Touched by Wirth’s situation and reminded of the grandparents now an ocean away in the Philippines who raised her, Celis, 49, said the offer was an easy one to make.

She sat down with her husband, Edmundo, at the table one night to discuss the matter, but the conversation was a quick one, they said. They had a chance to make a real difference in someone’s life.

“You don’t see a lot of people these days get that old with no problems or medication,” Celis said. “I told my family, let’s see how far she can go. We take care of her and give her what she needs.

“She has no family, what are you going to do?”

Situations such as the Celis family’s adoption of Wirth aren’t entirely uncommon, a county spokeswoman said.

Wirth (left) has fit in well with her new family, which includes Edmund who also helps to look after her. Photo: TNS

“We see that there are a lot of kindhearted people out there,” Elizabeth DenBleyker, with Orange County Social Services, said. “We see it more often than you would think, which is heartwarming compared to what the situation could possibly be for these individuals.”

There are county programmes to assist seniors who can’t take care of themselves and have nobody to depend on. Adult protective services can step in to get those with a modest income, even just social security, into a nursing home or affordable housing, but living in a homeless shelter may be the only option in the toughest of situations.

Officials said 62% of the 11,227 seniors and disabled adults the county helped in 2016 were struggling with basic needs, such as housing, meals or money.

Wirth didn’t have identification or other documents when she came to live with the Celis family, so it has been hard to get her signed up for government services or get coverage for professional care. Until recently, the Celis family paid for a caregiver. Now, Edmundo, 61, and son, Edmund, 26, share the duty of being there for Wirth.

“We do our best to give her what we can,” Edmundo Celis said. “But she deserves more. He’s got a life, I’ve got a life. This isn’t our profession, but in our hearts we do what we can.”

Wirth gives the family her Social Security check, which combines with Gina Celis’ part-time nursing job and her husband’s retirement to form the household income. The family’s schedule ensures someone is always home with Wirth. For a recent family outing, they took her on a sight-seeing trip to Los Angeles.

Wirth has her own room in the family’s seven-bedroom house. It’s nothing too fancy, but it has a view of the back yard, where she said she loves to bask in the warm sunlight.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Edmund sat with Wirth in the yard. He brought out her favourite sunglasses, leaning close to her ear so she could hear his casual remarks on what a lovely day it was.

The family dog, Coco, curled up in her lap.

“Being with her, I feel like I need to enjoy my life while I’m young,” said Edmund, the eldest of the family’s two sons. “She’s really taught me to be in the moment and not worry so much about what will happen.”

Wirth’s health is as a strong as it’s been in recent years, Celis said.

When the two first met, Wirth was on hospice care, had difficulty swallowing food and had blisters on her legs, Celis said.

The blisters have healed, Wirth is off all medication and is strong enough to eat on her own. She’s a bit of a picky eater and has a major sweet tooth, but she won’t say no to a good hamburger.

Wirth doesn’t talk much and is very hard of hearing. She sometimes needs help getting between her bed and wheelchair, but she’s fairly independent beyond that, the family said.

At 108, Wirth is one of the oldest residents county officials know of.

The times she lived through, the changes she’s seen over the decades, they are just life for her. “I don’t think things have changed much.”

She’ll occasionally share tales of her youth, particularly her days dancing as a teenager in the 1920s.

“I could follow anything,” she said, remembering a favourite dance spot for her and her friends in Wisconsin.

One night, a man Wirth had never met before scooped her up and the strangers hit the dance floor for a contest.

“He grabbed me and we started dancing, and we got first prize,” Wirth said. “I think it was US$1,000 (RM4,400). He grabbed his part, I took mine and that was it. The other girl started crying, she said she should have won first prize. But she didn’t.”

In Wisconsin, Wirth stayed at home raising her daughters as husband Arthur sold cars. But Wirth said she was always a walker, often enjoying a good afternoon stroll in her small home town.

Her daughter, Arlene, was less content – she married a doctor and headed for California as soon as she could. Arlene moved her parents to Orange County when Wirth was in her 90s, Piesek said.

Bouncing between nursing homes, Arthur died not long afterward. Arlene died of cancer less than 10 years later.

Wirth’s new family is dedicated to making her sunset years as peaceful as can be. For Wirth’s next birthday, Celis said she’ll find a way to squeeze all 109 candles on to the cake.

And for the record, Wirth’s secret to living so long:

“Walk a lot,” she said. “That’s about it.” – The Orange County Register/Tribune News Service