Michael Noble Jr. for NPR
Gloria Helmuth has seen the joy of what it means to turn 100. She’s not there herself — she’s 82 — but over the years, she’s helped pay tribute to hundreds of centenarians. And that has given her unique insight into what it means to actually live to 100.
There are the obvious health challenges, for one. And a lot of the time, it can be downright lonely. Loved ones — like spouses, friends, even children — may have passed years, and sometimes decades, before a person crosses the century mark.
“I just feel that it’s important that they know that somebody does care about them,” Helmuth says. “And that’s the reason for our existence.”
Helmuth is the director of an all-volunteer group called the Centenarians of Oklahoma. Their mission is simple: to honor anyone in the state who is 100 years of age or older.
The U.S. has more centenarians overall than any other nation, and thanks to medical advances and changes in lifestyle, it’s a growing population. There are about 90,000 centenarians living in the U.S. today, according to the Census Bureau, nearly three times as many as there were some 40 years ago. In another 40 years, that number could swell to nearly 600,000.
In Oklahoma, there are thought to be about 500 people who are 100 or older, according to the Centenarians of Oklahoma. Since its founding in 1991, the group says it has honored more than 2,700 and counting.
“We travel all over the state,” says Sue Scott, board chair for the organization and one of the volunteers who conducts its tribute ceremonies. “Our oldest person just passed away last year … she was 112.”
Two others are set to become supercentenarians in the next year — 110 years old. “They have some stories to tell,” says Scott.
Honoring the state’s “Golden Oakies”
A typical tribute ceremony features a short biographical sketch of each new centenarian, along with some trivia the group has collected after more than 30 years in operation. Scott might point out, for example, that more than 80% of the centenarians they’ve honored are women, or how the highest percentage of centenarians anywhere is in Japan. Each new inductee gets a certificate and a “Golden Okie” pin.
“We’ve done it in every situation. We’ve done it in bars and garages and outside and inside,” Scott says. “And during the pandemic we did it through windows — we stood outside and the seniors were inside. Anyway that works.”
Scott says she has even been invited to pay tribute to centenarians on their deathbeds.
“I believe they can hear us, because one particular man would squeeze the hand of his son standing there beside him when I would read certain things about him,” says Scott. “I think he was understanding some of it.”
There’s also an academic side to the group’s work. When a centenarian dies, volunteers take the biographical information that they’ve gathered and send it to the Edmon Low Library at Oklahoma State University for researchers there who study centenarians. The information is also shared with the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The importance of paying tribute
One of the group’s newest inductees is Paul Romanello, who was born in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York in 1922 — back when Warren Harding was president.
Talking to Romanello is like going back in time. He can tell you about how as a boy, he’d cook potatoes right in the street of what’s now Midtown Manhattan. Or how he says he memorized the eye exam to make it into the Army for World War II. Had he not, he might have missed the USO dance where he met the love of his life.
“She had a passion for dancing,” Romanello remembers. “In her dying days, she was still, ‘Paul, dance with me. Dance with me.'”
Paula Naylor is one of Romanello’s five children. She says the last few years have been tough for her dad. He lost his wife in 2015 after 70 years of marriage. He stayed in their home for a few years, but would eventually move into an assisted living facility. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Naylor says he was pretty much isolated from the world.
“We noticed that he was quite a bit different from not being able to interact with people, because he was a very sociable Italian,” says Naylor.
But the celebration for his 100th birthday, held last month at a senior living community in Tulsa, gave her father something to look forward to.
“It was good,” Romanello says of his celebration. “I thought it was nice.”
“When we rolled him into the library and the whole family was there, he was so excited,” Naylor says. “He seemed very happy that he was getting all this attention, and he knew he had finally reached 100. And that’s what he’d been talking about for months.”
Words of wisdom
Helmuth, the Centenarians of Oklahoma director, says stories like that are what it’s all about.
“Those are the things that make our day, that make doing this worthwhile to us,” says Helmuth. “The few of us that do this are blessed by being able to work with the 100-year-olds.”
Over the years, the organization’s volunteers have collected words of wisdom from the centenarians about how to live a long, full life.
Some give practical advice, like “eat your vegetables” or “work hard and save money.” Others are more philosophical, like “don’t worry about what you can’t change” or “look for good in everything.”
Then there’s one of Helmuth’s favorites.
“One lady just wrote ‘keep on breathing,'” she says with a laugh. “She’s got a good sense of humor. She’s going to be OK.”