Jimmy Carter, one year after entering home hospice, remains resilient

A visitor tours the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in Plains on Saturday, September 30, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A visitor tours the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in Plains on Saturday, September 30, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

You can hardly blame Jimmy Carter’s family for what they might have been thinking.

One year ago this weekend, the family announced the former president had entered home hospice care.

Since then, Carter showed up at the annual peanut festival in Plains. He celebrated his 99th birthday. He watched his beloved Atlanta Braves win 104 games.

And he held the hand of his wife of 77 years, Rosalynn Carter, as she lay dying.

A year later, Jimmy Carter is still here.

“When he first went into hospice ... we thought he had a matter of days,” said Jason Carter, a grandson. “That’s what the doctors were saying. But one way to think about it is God wasn’t done with him yet.”

2015: Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)

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At the time, neither the Carter family nor the nonprofit Carter Center elaborated on his condition. But it was no secret that he had been struggling with health issues after outliving two presidents who succeeded him, as well as his former vice president.

In 2015, Carter survived a melanoma diagnosis that later spread to his brain. The discovery followed the removal of a lesion on his liver that took about 10% of the organ. He also suffered several falls in 2019, including one requiring 14 stitches, and other health scares that required hospitalization.

In recent years, he and Rosalynn scaled back their public schedules. They spent much of the coronavirus pandemic secluded in their home in Plains, where they both grew up.

Only 6% of people who formally enter hospice care make it as long as 365 days, according to Ben Marcantonio, interim CEO of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

“It is not common, but it happens,” Marcantonio said.

The median hospice stay was 17 days in 2021, according to the group.

Hospice care is a service for people with serious illnesses who choose not to get or continue aggressive treatment to cure or control their illness. It focuses on the comfort and quality of life of a person approaching the end of life.

“Now it is just between him and God,” said Tony Lowden, Carter’s personal pastor. “I have been truly blessed, watching him compete for life.”

Already the longest-living U.S. president in history, Carter’s next birthday, on Oct. 1, would be his 100th.

Jason Carter said that while his grandfather has obviously physically slowed down, he is still doing fine.

“This last year has been a remarkable one,” Jason Carter said. “He’s doing the same. There hasn’t been any real change. He’s just continuing to wake up each morning.”

President Jimmy Carter's grandson, Jason Carter, speaks to guests during a press conference organized by the Gateway85 Community Improvement District in Gwinnett County in May 2023. The event aimed to spotlight Jimmy Carter's legacy and pay tribute to him with banners unveiled along a 2-mile stretch of Jimmy Carter Blvd.

Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

When Carter wakes up, Lowden said, the former president still has the urge to serve. Carter regularly asks for updates of people in the community and at Maranatha Baptist Church, where Carter used to teach Sunday school. He regularly asks Lowden to pray, not just for him, but for his children and grandchildren as well.

“Here is a man who loves his lord and savior and he loves his family,” Lowden said. “Somewhere in between, he is hanging on for both. To serve his lord until it is time to go home and serve and pray for his children.”

Lowden tells a story of how as recently as last October, when the Israel–Hamas conflict began, Carter was looking for ways to help.

“He was asking, ‘Do you think I need to go to D.C. and talk to someone?’” Lowden recalled. “It is the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. Someone still trying to figure out how they can serve. His servant heart is unreal.”

June 9, 2019 Plains: Reverend Tony Lowden holds his daughter Tabitha in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church greeting visitors with President Jimmy Carter after leading the worship service on Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Plains.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Rosalynn Carter died last November at the age of 96. Jason Carter said she spent her last moments with the former president.

“He was very proud to be there with my grandmother until the end,” Jason Carter said.

Lowden said a lot of Jimmy Carter’s strength last year came from him wanting to be there for Rosalynn. The family disclosed last May that the former first lady had dementia.

Jimmy had known Rosalynn, who was delivered by his mother Lillian Carter, since she was a baby. Throughout their 77 years of marriage, they were rarely apart.

They spent their final months holding hands in the living room watching television and eating peanut butter ice cream.

“He was holding on for his bride. He didn’t want to go before her,” said Lowden, who tries to see Carter at least once a week. “He truly misses Rosalynn. He can deal with the physical and spiritual, but the love he has for his wife has him perplexed right now. It is a lonely thing for him.”

Jimmy Carter’s last public appearance was in late November, when he attended a public memorial, along with President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, at Emory University in Atlanta for Rosalynn. The following day, he attended a private funeral service with family and close friends at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains.

“Frankly, the first night that he spent without her, all of us were nervous,” Jason Carter said. “But he was really at peace in a way that all of us were surprised by.”

Former President Jimmy Carter leaves  the funeral service for his wife, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, at Maranatha Baptist Church, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Plains, Ga. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Jill Stuckey, the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Park in Plains, visits with Jimmy Carter several times a week.

This past Wednesday, on Valentine’s Day, she was getting a vegetable plate ready to deliver to the former president. Her roommate makes it, but Stuckey always takes credit for it, which she said Carter gets a big kick out of.

Stuckey said nearly every visitor who comes to the national park asks about him and begs Stuckey to say hello on their behalf. On Monday, to mark Presidents Day, the park will host a series of events to celebrate Carter.

Portrait of Jill Stuckey, Superintendent of National Park Service in former first lady Rosalynn Carter's childhood garden, Monday, November 20, 2023, in Plains.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Jason Carter said his grandfather’s days are occupied by his caregivers — whom he called “true angels” — and his children Amy, Chip and Jeff.

“His children have been at his bedside for a year,” Jason Carter said. “They’re rotating and it has been a real sacrifice. The grandchildren are honored by how wonderful Chip, Amy and Jeff have been as caregivers and as people spending these last moments with their father.”

People ask them what they expect, but Jason Carter said they no longer have any expectations.

“He is living this part of his life, as part of that same faith journey that he’s been on for his whole life. And we’re all just there along for the ride.”