Serafina Gangemi Smith drives a car, lives alone, prepares her own meals from scratch and serves on community boards. That might not sound like much, until you discover that Smith is 91 and exhibits the energy of someone half her age.
She attributes her vitality to good diet and exercise. But that alone is not enough, Smith says. Experiencing new things and maintaining a sense of humor are also vital to good health and longevity.
"You need to keep moving, do what needs to be done and don’t complain," she said. "I love life."
Smith, who is of Italian descent, enjoys a Sicilian diet that includes lots of seafood and vegetables, with little meat. She makes her own pasta and homemade sauces, using herbs grown in window boxes on her apartment lanai in Nuuanu.
Another factor in Smith’s longevity is her lifelong love of learning. At the age of 60, she went to college and earned a degree in psychology. A second degree, in public administration, followed when she was 79 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"I was afraid to go back to school, but once I got in, it was such a great time," she said.
She also takes an interest in learning about local cultures. While living in Italy, she assisted nuns at an orphanage. While living in Thailand, she adopted a son who later died of lung cancer. After moving to Hawaii in 1971, she learned the art of feather and floral lei making and began painting military portraits. Her artwork has been displayed at the Pentagon, the Smithsonian and at various art shows.
Life hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Smith. She says she grew up in South Philadelphia with a neglectful mother. Thankfully, she had a caring Sicilian grandmother who stepped in. Smith was a trained classical dancer and taught dance classes until she was partially paralyzed during childbirth while in her 20s. Smith was told she wouldn’t walk again, but proved the doctors wrong.
She was married three times, twice to the same guy — a military man who was an alcoholic. Smith said she ended up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following several suicide attempts due to the emptiness that had consumed her life.
"My children were grown, and my husband was always out drinking. I played bridge but that was not fulfilling enough. I had a big hole in my life. I didn’t have friends or the affection that I am used to in my culture. I missed having physical contact," she said.
She later found Al-Anon, an agency she says helped her save her life. Her strong faith also helped carry her through the hard times and renew her optimism.
Smith is retired but continues to serve as a substance abuse and relaxation therapy counselor when needed. In 2009, Mayor Mufi Hannemann recognized her as a Silver Akamai Living Lifetime Award winner for helping others cope with life’s difficulties or assisting organizations that deliver health care, recreational or social services. She was cited for her volunteer work with the American Association of University Women, Al-Anon, Suicide Crisis Center, Hospice Hawaii, Pacific Institute of Chemical Dependency and the American Society for Public Administration.
Nowadays, Smith exercises daily and has taken up Pilates. Trying new things remains at the top of her to-do list. Smith also keeps up with technology, regularly using the Internet, e-mail and social networking sites.
"I enjoy food, enjoy booze and like to have fun. I have a lot to do yet. I never know what’s next," she said.