Why Alameda County Fails to “Get” Old

4Y2B8893Aging services in California are often hamstrung by dysfunction and uninspired leadership. To understand the problem, look no further than Alameda County’s top aging official.

Just as Alameda County begins to dive head first into the true challenges of aging, Randy Morris recently spoke aloud what public officials rarely admit, certainly not to an audience of peers: He never wanted the job he has, and he’s been ineffective in his role.

At a jammed gathering of aging advocates in Oakland early this month, Morris was the day’s last speaker during the panel “System Transformation in Alameda County.”

What followed sounded like an acknowledgement of defeat.

After 17 years working for the county in children’s welfare, Morris said, he’d applied for a position as the director of children’s services.   Instead, he was offered his current position as head of Adult and Aging Services.

“And I took a deep sigh and said yes,” lamented Morris.

He then recited a list of the obstacles he and the aging services he directs face every day: lack of resources, too many initiatives, clashing agencies and funding streams, underfunding by the federal Older Americans Act, and others.

Heads dropped. Faces frowned.

Morris has held his position for the past five years at a critical time, with the county’s current aging populace expected to triple in the five decades between 2010 and 2060. This so-called “silver tsunami” will create a tidal wave that could destroy county services as the flood of seniors overwhelm already taxed systems.

After years of fumbling, the county is finally in the process of knitting together a collaboration of government entities and community-based organizations that could make real change.

But it was not the first time Morris had raised his white flag in surrender.

On September 26, Morris presented his aging plan to Alameda County supervisors at a Joint Health and Social Services Committee meeting.

His vision for the future of aging in the county? Six bullet points.

The supervisors were clearly frustrated.

“We should not be playing games like this,” said supervisor Nate Miley, the board’s leading advocate for the county’s aging efforts.

“I don’t get it when I look at this thing,” echoed supervisor Wilma Chan. “And we’ve been at this for 18 months.”

After the joint session, for the first time ever, county supervisors OK’d an official task force to address the problems of aging, setting into motion a plan that depends heavily on community-based partners.

So, when Morris spoke in front of the roomful of hopeful aging advocates on December 2, he was speaking to those he was charged to encourage, inspire, and lead. Instead, he left the audience attending the third annual Making the Difference event – sponsored by the 40-member Senior Services Coalition of Alameda County – discouraged.

His timing was terrible.

Besides the uncertain psychological toll, the financial cost to Alameda County is significant. Morris collects a salary of almost $160,000 a year – nearly a quarter of a million dollars with additional income and benefits.

In his book Creativity, Inc.: Understanding the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Pixar president Ed Catmull writes “My job as a manager is to create fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.”

And in the best-selling book Risk: The Passion of Power and Perseverance, author Angela Duckworth profiles Seattle Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, who has created a culture that thrives on grit: “Personally, I have learned that if you create a vision for yourself and stick with it, you can make amazing things happen.”

In aging, these visionaries exist — even within Alameda County.

In Fremont, the passionate and innovative Karen Grimsich has led the creation of an astounding web of supportive systems for the city’s older adults. On the outskirts of Chinatown, Bill Langelier has transformed the Asian senior living site Hotel Oakland Village into a bastion of health through its extraordinary health groups.

Across the Bay, San Francisco County has long sponsored progressive, coordinated efforts to support older adults and aging.

Further south, Laura Trejo’s fiery leadership in Los Angeles County is supported by city mayor Eric Garcetti, who was recently named one of Next Avenue’s Top 50 Influencers in Aging.

And while Morris is only now thinking to blend his goals with the local Area Agency on Aging – one of 33 in the state – San Diego County’s Aging & Independence Services and its AAA are literally the same entity.

Morris’ vision?

“We have fallen short in coordinating and talking to one another regarding aging,” he told county supervisors in September.

Still, there is hope.

A key aspect to Alameda County’s future is a “de-centralized” approach that heavily involves community stakeholders.

Making the Difference conference organizer Wendy Peterson, who heads the Senior Services Coalition of Alameda County, is heartened by the possibilities.

“We now have a plan with goals and objectives,” said Peterson of the county’s task force. “It’s great not to have ‘top down powers-that-be’ dictate the scope and definition of this new body. For me it’s a very positive thing.”

Rebecca Gebhart, the new director of the county’s Health Care Services Agency, is an enthusiastic and hopeful proponent of aging services despite her background in children’s services.

During an interview, Gebhart trumpets the county’s first ever deep dive survey into needs and services for seniors — an inventory that gives the county a clear idea where it stands. She then excitedly details a variety of initiatives to help seniors spanning aging in place, housing, home repairs, fall prevention and behavioral health.

“We’re breaking new ground and it’s massive, and we’re trying to do it the right way,” says Gebhart, citing its community partners. “We can do something amazing here with this cast of characters.”

Peterson’s community coalition and Gebhart’s health care agency are two of three primary stakeholders in Alameda County’s new task force.

The third: Randy Morris who, by emphasizing the obstacles to change, is emblematic of the problems in aging services. Not only are inspiration and enthusiasm contagious, they’re free.  (Morris declined an interview for this article.)

Long-term care in California is indeed the “Shattered System” described by a state senate report two years ago. While challenges aplenty face older adults within this system, it’s readily apparent to anyone involved with aging that this “system” is made up of two kinds of people: Visionaries who lead system change, and those who resist it.

California’s aging citizens desperately need champions who will fight with tenacity. And Alameda County needs steady, powerful, passionate leaders to guide this effort with both vision and grit.

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