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Alzheimers on the Rise in Hawai‘i

A wave of graying boomers will change the way we live and age in the Islands. No surprise, we’re finding our own ways of facing the challenge.


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“iron lady” winifred ka‘aihue has cared for her mother, her mother-in-law and her husband.
Photos: Diana Kim 

Joyce Lani Ka‘aihue was preparing for a client meeting at Bank of Hawai‘i, where she was a vice president, when the phone rang. It was her father, Edwin, who, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, had stopped calling years ago when he lost touch with numbers. Recently, he’d also stopped making sense, which made the words of the World War II veteran and proud “100-percent Hawaiian” all the more compelling: “Lani, take care of mother. Take care of mother.”


As it turned out, says Ka‘aihue, “those were his last words to me.” 


That 1998 phone call prompted Lani to check in on her mother, Edwin’s wife, Winifred Ka‘aihue. Born in Hilo, taken out of school at age 12 to sew work clothes for plantation workers, she’d been rescued at 22, whisked away to Honolulu by dashing Edwin. A waitress at Coco’s, she was legendary for her ability to balance a dozen hot plates stacked on her forearms as she moved around her section.


But, in her 80s, Winifred was juggling the care of her husband, her mother-in-law, who had dementia, and her mother, who, eluding diagnosis, was also “out of her head” much of the time. During the day, Winifred also watched two grandchildren. 


When Lani got home from work that day, she took a good look at her mother. “I could see that, if someone didn’t help Mom, she would die first.”


And so Lani Ka‘aihue ended up quitting her job to assist her brother, Allen, who’d moved in to help but had a day job. One by one, the elders passed away, including Edwin Ka‘aihue in 2002, leaving only Winifred, “the iron lady,” with her wits still about her. Oddly, it was Lani who had trouble making the transition. She returned to banking, yet the pace proved too demanding. Another job proved a poor fit; still, her impressive résumé landed her a third job, at a hospital—only this one was too distracting. Her fourth job in three years finally worked out. But, last year, she raised a hand in a meeting, only to find nothing on her mind when called on.


laughter flows when winifred, 88, and her daughter, lani, 63, talk story.


lani is the one having trouble with dates and can’t drive.

 “That was the first sign,” says Lani, now 63. 


Afterward, “I self-referred to my primary-care physician,” she says. “After the first scan he didn’t seem too terribly worried. But, mentally, I was in a gray area where I was questioning everything. What month is this? I’d write things down I wrote down the day before.”


Further testing confirmed that it was early-onset Alzheimer’s. Given its fast progress, Winifred, “a small Japanese lady with the soul of a tank,” as a smiling Lani calls her, will probably keep her wits longer, and might even outlive, her caregiver daughter. 


A cruel twist of fate, Lani’s story is also a foreshadowing of America and Hawai‘i’s coming reckoning with the aging of the baby boomers. The first of 80 million boomers turned 65 a year ago and, along with collecting Social Security and Medicare, are also finding themselves at the forefront of a gray wave. 


It’s a wave poised over our age-friendly, long-lived Islands: “In 2030, there will be nearly 400,000 adults age 65 and over in Hawai‘i,” according to James H. Pietsch, law professor and director of the University of Hawai‘i Elder Law Program. “And they will constitute nearly one-fourth of the population,” up from 15.6 percent in 2013.




To put it in perspective, that will be almost twice as many old people in the aisles when the weekly Longs sale kicks off—you likely among them, as a caregiver if not a fiercely competitive coupon clipper.


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