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Hawaii has lost two heroes of kupuna

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Most kupuna don’t know Laura Manis and Tony Lenzer. They never sought the spotlight nor did they seek credit for their accomplishments that helped older Hawaii residents.

But they were giants as advocates — fearless, smart and passionate, never content to accept things the way they were. They fought hard to make Hawaii a better place for kupuna.

Both were retired, but both were busier as retirees than they were when they were in the workforce. Family and friends said they kept preparing to fight to increase care for kupuna right up until their deaths earlier this year. Manis was 93 and Lenzer was 88.

Lenzer’s daughter Sara Medeiros said her father was an activist for as long as she can remember.

“My earliest memories are of being pushed about in a stroller at equal housing demonstrations,” Medeiros said. “When he couldn’t drive any more, my brother dropped him off at the Legislature and at meetings.”

Laura’s son, Robert Manis, said his mother volunteered as an advocate with the Alzheimer’s Association and AARP shortly after she and her husband moved to Hawaii when she was 59, and she kept joining more senior advocacy groups to make sure Hawaii’s seniors lived their best lives.

Lenzer came to Hawaii in 1969 and developed the generontology program at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, teaching the first class on aging in 1970. He helped create the UH Center on Aging and was its first director in 1988. Along the way, he also helped establish Hospice Hawai‘i, the Hawai‘i Pacific Gerontological Society and the Hawai‘i Family Caregiver Coalition. While at the Center on Aging, Lenzer produced an award-wining 13-hour course on aging called “Growing Old in a New Age.” It was shown on public television stations across the country and used by more than 100 colleges as a teaching tool.

He retired in 1994, but continued to teach classes and advocate at the Legislature. His strength as an advocate was his intellect and ability to educate lawmakers.

Both Lenzer and Manis were volunteers with AARP. They also belonged to and advocated for other organizations, including the Kokua Council, one of the state’s oldest senior citizen advocacy groups.

“(Manis) did have the sense that we were put on this earth to do some good, so do some good,” said John McDermott, the long-term care ombudsman in the Executive Office of Aging. “I think she just had a real passion for protecting the underdog and recognized that seniors, as they become older and more frail, are very easily victimized. … They need somebody to champion their cause and she was there to protect people.”

When a legislator told Manis that the seniors should be grateful for the money they had been given for kupuna services, she quietly but firmly told the lawmaker, “Those are crumbs. You should do more.”

Manis and Lenzer were heroes and mentors to many because of their dedication to helping others. They were true age disruptors. They showed us what you can accomplish no matter how old as long as you have passion, brains and perseverance.

As former state senator Suzanne Chun Oakland said: “Hawaii has the highest longevity in the nation, third-longest in the world. They helped make the quality of life for our seniors wonderful.” The lives of our past, present and future kupuna are infinitely better because of these two heroes.

Barbara Kim Stanton is the state director for AARP Hawaii, an organization dedicated to empowering people to choose how they live as they age.

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