A Senior Moment

Chasing after Hawaii's oldest person.

Illustration: Marci Roth

Quick, what’s Hawaii’s tallest peak? Piece of cake: Mauna Kea. Waikiki’s oldest hotel? The Moana Surfrider. Our state’s oldest resident? Anyone?

Turns out nailing down this particular superlative isn’t easy. In fact, as a journey up the chain of command at the Hawaii Department of Health proved, it may not even be currently answerable. According to Dr. Alvin Onaka, Hawaii state registrar of vital statistics and chief of the office of health status monitoring, “We don’t have any information on the longest living people, only their age at time of death.”

Noemi Pendleton, director of the State Executive Office on Aging, agrees that it is a compelling question—to which neither she nor her agency has the answer. I met the same response at both the City and County Elderly Affairs Division and the University of Hawaii’s Center on Aging.

Even the people in charge of verifying claims of old age for the Gerontology Research Group (GRG)—the organization that tracks the world’s supercentenarians (ages 110 and up)—don’t have any Hawai‘i supercentenarians in their files and don’t keep track of “plain old” centenarians (our term, not theirs). In fact, “Only a few states keep records of their centenarians, and these are mostly in the Midwest,” says GRG researcher Robert Young.

So I queried the local office of the U.S. Census Bureau, but was told that all Census employees, including temporary hires, swear under oath, under threat of fine or imprisonment, to keep personally identifiable information confidential.

This information gap is “a very interesting question that I deal with a lot,” says Dr. Bradley Willcox, a geriatrics investigator at Pacific Health Research Institute and the director of clinical research at The Queen’s Medical Center. “Research used to be much easier to do a few years ago. There are issues surrounding confidentiality that make it very difficult to dig up those kinds of data.”

Willcox is also the principal investigator of the Kuakini Hawaii Lifespan Study, an ancillary study of human longevity derived from the Honolulu Heart Program/Honolulu-Asia Aging Study, which has been conducting research on heart disease and other age-related diseases since 1965, and even they don’t know who the oldest Hawaii resident is.

“You almost have to put an ad in the newspaper,” Willcox says. “And who’s going to volunteer? And how do you know you’ve got them all? We’ve seen a sea change in the ability to track these people down because of confidentiality issues. It’s a balance: How do you protect confidential information, yet do what you’re supposed to do and find ways to help people live longer, healthier lives if you can’t do the studies?”

Counting Kupuna

The directors at the Gerontology Research Group (GRG) would love to add to their record books some Hawai‘i supercentenarians—that’s anyone aged 110 and up—but anyone 108 or older is of interest. GRG needs these super seniors to come forward, paperwork in hand (birth certificates, marriage licenses, other proof of identification, etc.), or have their families do so on their behalf. For more information, visit the group’s Web site, grg.org.