LeadingAge California celebrates 60 years
Engage Magazine Spring/Summer 2021

The More Things Change…

by Anne Burns-Johnson, former CEO of LeadingAge California, 2001-2009

As my mother-in-law descended into dementia, her strategic stock phrase, used in many situations, was “It is the same, but different.” So on this occasion of LeadingAge California celebrating its 60th anniversary, I feel I can repeat that comment. “It is the same, but different.”

Sixty years ago, there was no Medicaid, no Medicare, and no Civil Rights Voting Act. There was a young vibrant President, just over nine percent of the population was 65 or older, women comprised one-third of the workforce, and the Cold War, specifically fear of Russia, was daily news. Infrastructure spending on schools, roads, bridges was rampant. There was no Brookdale, no Sunrise, no Erickson. Homeless counts were not made. At the 40th anniversary of the association, when I was CEO, we played an interminable tape of a provocative Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”

In 2021? Medicare and Medicaid cover 34 percent of the U.S. population, assaults on voting rights are front page news, there is an older yet vibrant President, nearly 17 percent of the population is over 65, women comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce, and fears of Russia, now tampering in our elections, continue to exist. The recognition of white systemic behavior raises many questions about police and society. Our infrastructure is antiquated, if not hazardous. For-profit senior living corporations dominate retirement living. Over half a million people are homeless. And the #MeToo movement would disown Kim Kardashian breathily singing birthday greetings to Joe Biden.

But just as in 1961, 2021 offers unseen opportunities and arenas for exploration for senior living providers. Over the last 60 years, there has been progress for individuals, many different business opportunities, and new modes of thinking and living. But basic issues with and concerns about societal equity, access, and fairness remain and exist more prominently than 60 years ago. Those are good things to be concerned about. And they present many opportunities for Leading Age California members.

As Boomers turn 75 (we/they were 15 years old in 1961) I challenge all of us to think differently.

Can some of your buildings be turned into intergenerational housing? Millennials and Silent Generation seniors can probably co-habitate more easily than any of us want to imagine (or perhaps even think about).

  • Can you sell struggling or marginal properties and use the asset to invest in community programs for seniors? Or maybe sell a strong asset serving 300 residents and make it a community program resource serving 5,000
  • Can freestanding skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) become service-supported community homeless housing? (If you don’t have a SNF, there will probably be a lot on the market soon enough).
  • Can you expand your resident-based technology into your community, and not have it be a privilege of just a few?
  • Are you in the process of reconstructing your Board to reflect not the past but the future of California? Is your Board reflective of the ethnic composition of the communities in which you operate? And, oh, by the way, what about your management team?  
  • What are the opportunities you offer your workforce? Are you stuck in tuition payment programs when the need might be self-scheduling? 
  • Where is your voice? Our voice? Jeannee Parker Martin has done a superb job in raising the awareness of senior needs in California, but where is the Claude Pepper, the Maggie Kuhn, the Grey Panthers of 2021?  

Even from a distance of 10+ years as LeadingAge California’s CEO, I can hear the complaintive response: ”Nice ideas. We don’t have the money.” Well, neither did Tom Jenkins and his taxi ride companions. There was a need in 1961 and they set out to fill it. Reframing and addressing the underlying society concerns for aging is where LeadingAge California members excel. It is time to make it not the same, but different, but just plain different.  

I luxuriated in my decade as the CEO of LeadingAge California. It was a wonderful experience filled with camaraderie, compassion and concern for individuals and the collective good. May we all retain these values and age gracefully and with purpose.