When Rosalynn Carter was 90, she was wheeled into an operating room in an Atlanta hospital for major surgery.
The surgeon warned Jimmy Carter that his wife’s advanced age made the operation to remove a large part of her colon dangerous. It was 2018 and the former president, then 93, sat awake all night praying in the hospital.
At dawn, after learning Rosalynn had survived, Jimmy dialed his grandson.
“It was 6 a.m. He said he wanted to go home and spend the rest of his time with her,” Jason Carter recalled. “That was the moment he truly retired; he said no more executive meetings at the Carter Center. He just wanted to be with her.”
Rosalynn was Jimmy’s devoted partner for 77 years until she died Sunday at age 96. They traveled the world together during and after his presidency. She was at his side when he entered hospice care at home nine months ago, and he was at her side after it was announced a few months later that she had dementia. Jimmy was with Rosalynn on Friday when she joined him in hospice care. With her passing, however, the former president is now without his Rosalynn for the first time since she was a teenager.
A key focus of her life’s work was to honor those who help the sick and elderly. She often spoke about the emotional toll of caring for — and then surviving — a loved one. As their health declined over the years, Jimmy and Rosalynn were often each other’s caregivers. Until her final days, Rosalynn was still able to get around with the help of a walker. But she had been losing weight in the past week and was becoming increasingly frail, according to family members.
“Time just caught up with her,” her niece, Kim Fuller, said Sunday after her death was announced. “She was getting more and more weak.”
Rosalynn was last seen in public two months ago at the annual Plains Peanut Festival in the Carters’ hometown, right before Jimmy’s 99th birthday, where she waved to the crowd while holding her husband’s hand from the back of an SUV driven by a Secret Service agent.
Members of the Carter family said Rosalynn found comfort in being able to see from her front door in Plains the grassy slope where she and her husband planned to be laid to rest, side by side.
“They were at peace with what was coming,” said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who visited them in their home earlier this year.
Rosalynn was the second-longest living first lady, after Bess Truman, the wife of Harry S. Truman, who lived to be 97.
The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, which she founded in 1987, supports family members and others who take care of those unable to function alone. She called caregivers the backbone of the nation’s community health care system and said they too often went unrecognized for the vital work they do.
Rosalynn was devastated when her father got leukemia and died when she was 13. Though young herself, she was the eldest child of four and so she sold eggs to help support the family. She also helped her mother, who needed to work, care for her younger brothers and sister.
The former first lady often said that there are only four types of people: those who have been caregivers, those who are now caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregiving themselves.
Anne Mahoney Robbins, a former White House aide to Rosalynn said she often saw her taking care of others, making the time to talk with them or offering a hug. “She said she had been lucky and she wanted to give others a break, too,” Mahoney Robbins said.
For many years, Rosalynn championed childhood vaccinations against measles and other diseases. She traveled widely to discuss the importance of getting schoolchildren vaccinated.
Rosalynn grew up in Plains, a town of only 700, and knew Jimmy as a child. After they married and he was running a peanut farm and warehouse, she was his bookkeeper. When he ran for elected office, she was regarded as his best campaigner and, according to their son Chip Carter, “she was definitely the better politician.”
“She was a total partner to Jimmy in every way,” said Mahoney Robbins, who accompanied her on campaign trips during Jimmy’s successful 1976 presidential bid.
Rosalynn took Jimmy’s defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and failure to win a second term far harder than her husband did, the couple said in a 2018 interview with The Post. He said his need to cheer her up and find things to look forward to helped him get over the loss.
“She really broke down,” Mahoney Robbins recalled. “She would say, ‘Why would the country do this to him?’”
When they began their post-presidency charity work, Rosalynn focused on advocating for mental health and new ways to support caregivers.
Rosalynn teamed up with Betty Ford, the first lady who preceded her in the White House. Ford, who publicized her own struggle with alcoholism, was a national advocate for better treatment for addictions.
Gleaves Whitney, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, recalled Rosalynn coming to Michigan to speak at the Ford Museum. “She could be charming and witty, but above all she was a straight shooter,” he said. “And, before you talk to her, before you challenge her, make sure you have done your homework.”
Rosalynn accompanied her husband’s many overseas trips, promoting human rights from Asia to Africa.
In the 2018 Post interview, she recalled a most unusual trip to North Korea in 1994. No prior U.S. president had been to that country, which barred most foreigners. At the time, North Korea was threatening to build nuclear weapons. Jimmy’s mission was to get then-leader Kim Il-sung to allow international inspectors to monitor North Korea’s nuclear activity.
Before the serious discussion — which did end in an agreement — the Carters and Kim took a cruise down a river. “We just talked about fishing,” said Rosalynn, who often went fly-fishing with her husband. When the high-stakes discussion started, she said she then became the official note taker.
Asked about the secret to a happy marriage, she said to give your spouse some space but also not to miss out sharing hobbies and fun pastimes. At 59, for instance, she learned to ski so she could join Jimmy on the slopes.
Even into her 90s, Rosalynn worked side by side with her husband on construction sites with Habitat for Humanity, building affordable homes for others.
Since 2015, when Jimmy was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, the Carters seesawed back and forth about which one was the other’s caretaker.
Against the odds, the former president recovered from the usually fatal cancer, and soon he was helping Rosalynn, who was becoming unsteady on her feet. Then in 2018, she was hospitalized. A large part of her colon was taken out because of enormous pain caused by scarring from a long-ago operation. Jimmy would bring her treats and rub her toes.
“He actually was a very good nurse,” said Jill Stuckey, a family friend in Plains.
But a series of falls since 2019 weakened Jimmy.
By the end, their globe-trotting days over, the Carters spent their days in their living room. They shared blueberries in the morning and watched “Law and Order” in the evening. Jimmy rested in his brown recliner and Rosalynn sat on the end of their blue sofa, close enough to lay her hand on his.
Their living room looks remarkably similar to what it looked like 1961, when they built it. There is little evidence that the Carters belonged to the rarefied world of America’s first families, other than a photo of the couple and their four children walking down Pennsylvania Avenue at Jimmy’s 1977 inauguration.
Kim Fuller said the Carters remained each other’s caregiver, even when all they could do was hold the other’s hand. “They were never far from each other,” she said.
“It’s hard to imagine one without the other,” said Stuckey, who saw them most days.
In February, when Jimmy entered hospice, he said he would no longer go to the hospital for any treatment because he said the trips away were too hard on Rosalynn. He wanted them to be together.
When Young visited them in their living room that month, the three old friends said a prayer together. Rosalynn was quiet. Jimmy just smiled.
“They seemed so happy to be with each other,” he said.