Former first lady Rosalynn Carter is in hospice care at home in Plains, Georgia, joining former President Jimmy Carter, who has been receiving end-of-life care since February, their family announced Friday.
The Carter family said they are “grateful for the outpouring of love and support” but asked for privacy. The Carters have been married for 77 years and are the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history.
The family announced earlier this year that the 96-year-old former first lady is suffering from dementia. The former president, now 99, entered hospice care at home in February but remains alert, those close to him say.
They have been together through Jimmy Carter’s rise from their Georgia farm to his election to the presidency in 1976. After his 1980 defeat, the couple established The Carter Center in Atlanta as a global center to advocate human rights, democracy and public health.
“I loved politics,” Rosalynn Carter told The Associated Press in 2021. She said she had “the best time” campaigning on her husband’s behalf in what they both described as “a full partnership.”
Long after leaving the White House, Jimmy Carter said, “The best thing I ever had happen in my life was when she said she’d marry me.”
The family’s announcement Friday brought a new round of tributes.
Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock called the former first lady “a remarkable woman of great faith” and said “her service to Georgia and our country is part of an incredible legacy.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization who worked with the Carters on public health initiatives for decades, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was “thinking of the former First Lady and the President tonight, and appreciating their lifelong dedication to making the world a bitter, fairer, healthier place for all.”
The couple’s grandson, Jason Carter, said in a recent interview that his grandparents have enjoyed spending their “last chapter” together at home, celebrating their longevity, family and love in the same tiny Georgia town where they both were born.
“That word love is really the one that defines certainly their personal relationship, but also the way they approach this world,” said Jason Carter, who is now chair of The Carter Center’s governing board.
Beyond her role as top presidential adviser, Rosalynn Carter became one of the world’s leading advocates for mental health care and elevating the role of caregivers in American life. She helped the Carter administration push through significant health care legislation during her husband’s term, and she continued her work after their White House years by establishing a fellowship for journalists to concentrate on more impactful ways to cover mental health issues.
She emphasized for years the need to reduce stigma attached to people who struggle with mental health conditions. Decades after leaving the White House, she testified on Capitol Hill urging Congress to put treatment and insurance for mental health conditions on par with other conditions in the U.S. health care system. She traveled the world helping developing nations confront their lack of mental health resources.
“I want people to know what I know — that today because of research and our knowledge of the brain, mental illnesses can be diagnosed and treated effectively, and the majority of those with these illnesses can recover and lead fulfilling lives … going to school, working, raising a family, and being productive citizens in their communities,” she said.
At the height of the Carters’ political power, the Washington press corps of the late 1970s dubbed Rosalynn Carter “the Steel Magnolia,” reflecting the quiet grace stereotypical of the era’s Southern political wives and a tough core that made her a force on her husband’s behalf and in her own right.
“She knew what she wanted to accomplish,” said Kathy Cade, a White House adviser to Rosalynn Carter.
Expanding the role of first lady, she worked in her own office in the East Wing with her own staff and on her own initiatives. She also huddled with the president’s advisers and sat in on top-level meetings, raising eyebrows in Washington power circles.
“She didn’t say anything in Cabinet meetings, but she wanted to be fully informed so she could give her husband good advice,” said Carter biographer Jonathan Alter.
Alter considers Rosalynn Carter’s only peers as influential first ladies to be Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, although he said the Carters’ partnership was more seamless, because it lacked the infidelity and personal drama of the Roosevelts and Clintons.
The bond also involved friendly rivalry and humor: “I never knew I’d be married to somebody that old,” Jimmy Carter wisecracked when his wife was 91.
They often raced to finish writing their next books or tried to best the other in tennis, skiing or any other pursuit.
Rosalynn Carter was at the center of her husband’s political campaigns, starting with his first state Senate race in 1962.
“In the beginning, I wrote letters to people. He would go out and then I would write letters to them,” she told The Associated Press. “But then it developed into a full-time job for me, working to help him get elected.”
She first campaigned solo during Jimmy Carter’s 1966 bid for governor. She was initially nervous but warmed to the role and ultimately demonstrated what White House adviser Stuart Eizenstat called “uncanny political instinct.”
In the White House, it was Rosalynn Carter who urged her husband to think more about the 1980 election as he set priorities, and talk through how decisions might play in the media. When Jimmy Carter stayed in Washington to work every angle to free the American hostages in Iran, the first lady hit his reelection campaign trail.
“I campaigned solid every day the last time we ran,” she told the AP.
Her emphasis on mental health and reducing stigma traced back to her husband’s Georgia campaigns.
Voters “would stand patiently” waiting to tell of their family struggles, she once wrote. After hearing one overnight mill worker’s story of caring for her afflicted child, Rosalynn Carter decided to take the issue to the candidate. She showed up at her husband’s rally that day, unannounced, and stood in line to shake his hand like everyone else.