Reports or Rebellion: Aging at a Crossroads

In January, Senator Carol Liu’s office released a powerful, comprehensive report  about the crisis of aging services in our state. My advice to Gov.  Jerry Brown: Don’t read it before you go to bed. You’ll have nightmares.

Spawned by the intelligence and passion of former legislator Patty Berg – Liu’s lead consultant and the report’s true author – it includes dozens of recommendations for reform, including a state Aging Czar.

“A Shattered System” is impressive on many levels and a must-read for all state legislators and anyone who cares about older adults. The result of Liu’s year-long Select Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care, it’s an indictment of the way the state supports and cares for its aging population, or, really, the way it does neither.

And with a septuagenarian in the governor’s office, the nation’s oldest chief executive, there’s simply no excuse for continued inaction.

While the report does not single out Brown personally, many who work in this field do. They say the governor seems to have no idea how so many older adults actually live. The poverty. Hunger. The social isolation, loneliness, and despair. Not to mention the ways our medical and long-term care systems humiliate and over-medicate older adults instead of respecting, understanding and honoring them.

Brown’s blind spot is compounded by something else the report ignores: Our state’s advocates for aging adults are alternately inoffensive, impotent and gutless.

The California Senior Legislature is today a shell of the powerhouse it was in the 1980’s. The California Commission on Aging is a toothless advisory group. The California Collaborative for Long-Term Services and Supports shares information weekly rather than promoting meaningful social change.

Rare is the senior advocate who will speak truth to power and confront the governor and his administration with the facts.

“He comes from a very privileged background,” explained Robert McLaughlin, the long-time chief consultant to the Assembly Committee on Aging and Long Term Care. Despite being a lifelong fan of Brown, McLaughlin said the governor has no idea what it’s like “to be abused and exploited because you’re not able to protect your finances” or why seniors must “impoverish themselves to pay for a nursing home.”

In a world that celebrates youth over wisdom, California’s governmental orbit is saturated with bureaucrats who would rather keep themselves comfortably numb than fight for true culture change – and the lives of older adults. Would any of them want to impoverish themselves to the point of needing the inadequate services provided by the state?

Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The truth is that most of the state’s legislators, health providers, and political donors don’t like old people because they think elders cost them money instead of building wealth.

Our biggest mistake is looking at older adults as liabilities rather than opportunities. When mined for their experience and wisdom, older adults offer immense cultural and political capital.

Clearly, what the state needs is an independent, fearless and rebellious voice for aging – one who isn’t exhausted by decades of institutional apathy and can act boldly without any strings attached to donors or fears about a secure retirement.

We have enough data. We have enough reports. In fact, this latest one largely echoes a report Berg authored a decade ago while she was still in the Assembly. Since then – and despite today’s enthusiasm – even she agrees virtually nothing has changed over the past 10 years. If anything, things have gotten worse.

“Nobody knows that better than me,” she admits.

What we need is action, immediately and on multiple fronts. Brown should support the Aging Czar that Liu and Berg recommend, and that person should consult some of the progressive Californians who are dedicating their lives to solving the problems that beset older adults. Among them:

— Dr. Walter Bortz, a brilliant physician and longevity expert who writes regularly about aging and at 85 still runs at least one marathon a year.

— Nader Shabahangi, who treats his residents as wise elders in his three AgeSong communities in San Francisco.

— Katy Fike, a gerontologist and MBA who runs the tech incubators Innovate50 and Aging 2.0. Nobody has more business and tech savvy when it comes to aging.

— Laura Trejo, the fiery head of the Los Angeles Department of Aging.

— All of the attorneys at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, headquartered in Los Angeles.

–Jenny Sasser, who leads the Gero-Punk Project and is committed to aging with attitude.

–Tim Carpenter and Stuart Kandell, creative arts programmers who understand the critical importance of art in maintaining health.

Here’s a list of practical initiatives that such a czar could take up in his or her first week in office for immediate impact:

–Promote the Senior Center Without Walls,  an amazing call-in community center for California adults where seniors can exercise, play, learn and travel from their own homes.
–Encourage mentoring programs that pair older adults with kids desperate for both attention and guidance.
–Begin senior neighborhood walking clubs and exercise groups throughout the state to combat the scourges of social isolation and depression.
–Initiate a public relations campaign “Respect Your Elders” to promote the importance of lifelong wisdom in solving social ills.
–Encourage caregiver training courses in high schools – just like those old home economics classes – to prepare all citizens for the escalating caregiver crisis.
–Promote public-private collaborations to create robust, active and progressive community centers like the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center  in San Diego.
Begin filing malpractice charges against physicians who overmedicate seniors.

The age of the “inoffensive elder” must end. It’s time for a new era of throat-choking, face-slapping advocates who demand the respect older adults have earned over 60, 70, 80 even 90 years of survival in American life.

The biggest scourge in modern society is this: Those making decisions for the rest of society are completely disconnected from them. Brown and his advisers, for instance, ought to meet an 88 year-old woman who was refused admittance to a hospital located in Joshua Tree despite a spine fracture, who was dumped at home at midnight in the cold winter air wearing only a gown and socks, without her house keys. Her cab driver called 911 to help her gain entry into her home and transition her inside – a job the hospital avoided in an act of supreme inhumanity.

For half a century, California has morphed from a youth-filled state filled with post-WW II families and youthful freedom seekers to a rising population of elderly.

California’s aging population will explode from today’s 5 million to 8.4 million seniors by 2030 – one in five Californians. We’re not ready for them. Brown is not ready. Yet by that time he’ll be long out of office and the senior crisis won’t be his problem any longer.

“We’re predicting a crisis if we don’t address some of these issues now,” says Suzanne Reed, Liu’s chief of staff, now tasked with spreading news of the report and meeting with constituent groups.

But here’s the most important thing.

Fixing our long-term care for seniors makes fiscal sense. There’s a raging locomotive called AGING coming down California’s tracks and it’s full of seniors who could bankrupt the state’s coffers if not handled with fierce intelligence and powerful compassion.

This week, Senator Liu’s office will unveil a slate of new bills to promote aging services, and it looks like she means business. Her strategy is to create alliances with fellow legislators to sponsor critical legislation.

A key element of the report – and of Liu’s strategy – is its emphasis on ethnic seniors. More than 40 percent of the state’s older adults include Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders, or African-Americans. With Reed leading the charge, Liu is targeting those minority caucuses – along with women’s groups – to build momentum.

Brown should also give New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo a jingle and ask how he’s offering incentives to localities that will solve the aging services crisis rather than fumbling it at the state level. Look around California. The hard truth is that progressive change is largely happening in cities and counties.

I know all of this seems bold, but California needs champions. Beginning the last of his historic four terms as governor, Brown is perfectly positioned to resurrect California’s reputation as the progressive state it once was for aging services. With the right leadership, this state can become a beacon of hope for elders nationwide.
Brown will turn 77 in April. It’s time he starts acting his age.

Note. This article was edited on June 25 to remove a reference to the AARP.

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