Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of slain US president John F. Kennedy and founder of the Special Olympics, died on Tuesday in Massachusetts, her family said in a statement. She was 88.
"The amazing Eunice Kennedy Shriver went home to God this morning at 2 am," said the statement.
"She was the light of our lives, a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt who taught us by example, and with passion, what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to others."
Members of Shriver's politically powerful family, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, bid farewell earlier on Monday in visits to Cape Cod Hospital in the northeastern state.
It was not clear whether her brother Senator Edward Kennedy, who is suffering from brain cancer, had managed to attend.
Shriver was admitted to hospital more than a week ago. The diagnosis was not revealed, but she had suffered several strokes recently.
Although less famous than her brothers, Shriver won long-lasting respect as a champion of the mentally ill, a cause inspired by her experience of having a mentally disabled sister, Rosemary.
Starting in 1962 with a summer camp at her home in Maryland, Shriver went on to build a major association that now counts almost three million athletes in more than 180 countries.
From 1971 the games were allowed by the US Olympic Committee to use the Olympics tag within the United States and in 1988 they were given official international recognition as an Olympic event.
In 2007, China's city of Shanghai hosted the 12th Special Olympics World Summer Games with athletes from 164 countries.
"Eunice Kennedy Shriver has changed the world for the better like few others in history. With a vision all her own, she has seen beyond every horizon to create new opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities," the Special Olympics website says.
Her brother Edward Kennedy, better known as Ted, said recently she had "always strived to be the best and she in many respects has made such an extraordinary difference in the lives of so many people in the world."
But Shriver will also be remembered simply for being at the core of a family that for decades towered over the Democratic party, serving almost as America's version of royalty.
She was sister to president John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, and to Robert Kennedy, a senator who had served as attorney general and was assassinated in 1968.
With Shriver dead and her brother ill, a whole era of US political life appears close to passing.
However, a new offshoot of the clan was born when Shriver's daughter, Maria, married former Hollywood action star Schwarzenegger, better known as "The Terminator" and now Republican governor in one of the most important US states.
Eunice Kennedy was the fifth of nine Kennedy children. Edward and Jean Kennedy Smith are her surviving siblings. She had 19 grandchildren.
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