Frances Gillett knows how to beat the odds.
The British woman believed to be the oldest female in the world with Down syndrome just turned 75. She celebrated the milestone with loved ones at a surprise birthday party thrown by friends who own the residential care center she calls home.
“From the era when she was born, to actually achieving this amazing age, it’s unbelievable, really,” said Wayne Bent, manager and part owner of Holly Cottage in Ely, England. “We just didn’t want it to be another birthday that comes and (goes). We wanted to make it a day to celebrate.”
When Gillett was born July 31, 1941, she was only expected to live into her early 20s. Life expectancy for people with the genetic disorder has increased dramatically over the decades, and it is now about 60, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
Gillett’s longevity is especially meaningful considering she has recovered from both tuberculosis and breast cancer within the last dozen years.
Bent recalled how Gillett surprised everyone after she emerged from her mastectomy with her typical energy and enthusiasm.
"When she came around from the anesthetic, she flung her arms in the air and wanted to give us all a big hug. Never really looked back from that day on, to be honest,” he told TODAY.
Gillett came to the residential facility about 20 years ago after her father had passed away and her mother began seeking help for herself. She has since become "more like a family member" than just another resident, Bent said.
A spokeswoman for the Guinness World Records said an Illinois woman with Down Syndrome lived to 83 before dying from complications related to a broken hip. However, Guinness no longer keeps track of that record because the severity of Down Syndrome symptoms varies too widely.
“It is vital that Guinness World Records can standardize all of our record titles. As a disability or disease can differ from one individual to the next, and life expectancies are constantly changing with advancements in medical science, it is not possible for us to maintain a level of consistency in these medical records," the organization said in a statement.
But Bent said Gillett is definitely among the oldest people alive with the disorder, and that alone makes her unique.
About 60 relatives, friends and former co-workers attended Gillett's birthday party, which was held at a village hall a few days ahead of the actual event. Gillett said she was so pleased by the surprise that she ran up to the first person she could — the photographer from the local Ely newspaper — and gave him a hug and kiss.
“She’s just an amazing person, and through her life, she’s always sort of touched people’s hearts really, in one way or another," Bent said. "She really is quite an inspiration really. We’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of the last few years with her. We just hope we can give her a happy life as long as we can with her."