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Encore: When someone turns 100, these volunteers are there to be sure they're honored


The Census Bureau says that in the U.S. today, there are around 90,000 centenarians, people who have reached the age of 100 or beyond. In Tulsa, there's a group working to honor their elder Oklahomans. NPR's Jason Breslow reports.

JASON BRESLOW, BYLINE: Gloria Helmuth has seen the joy of what it means to turn 100. She's not there yet - she's 82. But over the years, she's helped celebrate hundreds of centenarians. And that's given her special insight into what it means to actually live to 100. There are the obvious health challenges, and a lot of the time, it can be downright lonely.

GLORIA HELMUTH: I just feel that it's important that they know that somebody does care about them. That's the reason for our existence.

BRESLOW: Helmuth runs a group called the Centenarians of Oklahoma. Their mission is simple - to honor anyone in the state who is 100 or older.

SUE SCOTT: Well, I just come at the beginning and make a presentation that takes about 10 or 15 minutes. And I read a short biographical sketch about the centenarian. I present them a certificate and a Golden Okie pin, and they love that.

BRESLOW: That's Sue Scott, one of the volunteers who leads the group's tribute ceremonies.

SCOTT: It's an honor because people, when they find out about us, it's like, oh, my gosh, we really want to honor our parent. It's kind of like another birthday party. And sometimes it's the only thing that happens at that birthday party. They may have a cake, but it may just be us.

BRESLOW: One of the newest inductees is Paul Romanello, who was born in New York back when Warren Harding was president. Here's Sue Scott doing the honors.

SCOTT: Centenarians of Oklahoma, established in 1991, honor Paul Romanello, born December the 10, 1922 - 100 years and counting. Our No. 2,795th person - congratulations, and welcome to the Centenarians.

BRESLOW: 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.

PAUL ROMANELLO: I met my wife. She's from Arkansas. She had a passion for dancing. In her dying days, she would still - Paul, dance with me.

BRESLOW: Paula Naylor is one of his 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. And when COVID hit, he was pretty much isolated from the world.

PAULA NAYLOR: After the COVID pandemic was over, we noticed that he was quite a bit different from not being able to interact with people because he was a very sociable Italian (laughter).

BRESLOW: But Naylor says turning 100 gave her dad something to look forward to.

NAYLOR: When we rolled him into the library and the whole family was there, he was so excited. 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.

BRESLOW: Helmuth says stories like that are what make her work so worthwhile.

HELMUTH: Those are the things that make our day. The few of us that do this are blessed being able to work with the 100-year-olds.

BRESLOW: For years, the group has collected words of wisdom for living to 100. Some are practical, like, eat your vegetables. Others get more philosophical, like, don't worry about what you can't change. But if those don't do it for you, there's always one Gloria Helmuth likes to share.

HELMUTH: One lady just wrote, keep on breathing (laughter). She's got a good sense of humor. She's going to be OK, you know.

BRESLOW: Jason Breslow, NPR News, Tulsa, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.