SD health leaders attend Conference on Aging
By KATIE THISDELL
The Daily Transcript
Two of San Diego’s health leaders say they won’t wait for the White House to act on policies to improve the lives of older Americans.
They plan to take discussions from the recent White House Conference on Aging to spark local change right away.
Shelley Lyford, newly appointed chief executive of West Health, a San Diego-based medical research organization, joined 200 other thought leaders at the July 13 conference, which occurs once a decade.
Paul Downey, president and CEO of Serving Seniors and a Daily Transcript columnist, joined Lyford in Washington, D.C., and led a regional forum in Phoenix in March before the conference.
“We are taking action in San Diego, at West, at the Foundation, and at West Health,” Lyford said “We’re excited about making San Diego a model city for aging, and to that end, we’ll work with great partners like Paul and others.”
West Health, a medical research organization in La Jolla and policy center in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to helping seniors as they age.
About 250,000 baby boomers turn 65 every month. That means the challenges of protecting seniors become more urgent, President Barack Obama said in his keynote address.
“One of the best measures of a country is how it treats its older citizens. And by that measure, the United States has a lot to be proud of,” Obama said.
But there’s much work to be done.
The goal of the White House conference was to identify and advance actions to improve the quality of life of older Americans. The conference also marked the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security.
Talking about the aging population is the first step, though it’s a topic that’s sometimes seen as a dirty secret, said Downey, who has led the 45-year-old nonprofit Serving Seniors for 20 years, and is also president of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs and a commissioner for the California Commission on Aging.
“We’re looking at doubling the number of Americans over 65 by 2030,” Downey said. “Building policies now that allow us to sustain things like Social Security, like Medicare, like Medicaid, housing — all of those things are vitally important. We have to talk about it and sometimes it’s not something we’re likely to do.”
The core focus for Serving Seniors, based at the The Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center at 1525 Fourth Ave., is to keep seniors healthy and happy, and to lower the cost of health care. The nonprofit will serve more than 550,000 meals this year.
“We know that if we keep them healthy, first of all they’ll live a more fulfilled, happy life, and we all want that,” Downey said. “But we also know they’re going to access health care services less often, or least if they access them, it’ll be through their doctor rather than the emergency room.
“If we provide support services, we can hopefully avoid costly long-term care. Who among us aspires to live out our days in a nursing home? None of us.”
In addition to assisting with affordable housing, offering learning opportunities, providing support services and promoting healthy aging, Serving Seniors also delivers meals to about 500 people who are homebound — “the forgotten folks” — who need meals and human contact.
Before the one-day conference, Downey led a session in Phoenix about nutrition and the importance of meals. Five regional forums in the spring preceded the conference.
Those living in poverty don’t have the money to buy food, and people who are alone may not take time to make themselves proper meals, Downey said. Many in the medical arena view eating a nutritious meal as just as important as taking medication.
“Making sure they’re getting those meals keeps them happier and healthy, and reduces the need to end up in the hospital,” Downey said.
While this year’s conference was smaller than in past decades, it was streamed across the nation at 600 watching parties.
Lyford had pitched an idea for panel participation, and though it was declined, she was invited to attend the conference at the last minute, the Friday before the conference.
“It was really such a privilege to be one of those 200 attendees,” Lyford said.
She was part of a contingent representing Grantmakers in Aging.
Funded by philanthropists Gary and Mary West, West Health pioneers new and smarter technologies, policies and practices to make high-quality health care more accessible at a lower cost to all Americans.
West Health includes the Gary and Mary West Health Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization, and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Gary and Mary West Health Policy Center.