Viewpoint: Living well while aging well

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Iona Senior Services' Isabella Breckinridge Community Center is located at 4125 Albemarle St. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2016)

Our community is rich with nonprofit organizations led by effective and compassionate leaders – many of whom have devoted their lives to this work.

One such leader is Sally White, who is celebrating more than 30 years at Iona Senior Services, which helps older adults – and their family caregivers – age well and live well.

White’s Iona journey began when she arrived fresh out of graduate school. Three decades later, she is a leader in the field of aging and a champion for the rights of older adults and their caregivers.

White came to Iona because she had worked in the psychiatric ward of a hospital when she was in college and could not understand why there were so many depressed older people in the ward (she now knows it’s because of all the losses they suffered and the
struggle to find meaning in their lives).

In her time at Iona, White has worn nearly every hat, from intake specialist to executive director. Her first office was in a converted bathroom in a former parish house. Today, she oversees hundreds of staff and volunteers in Iona’s 20-year-old building on Albemarle
Street in Northwest Washington as well as throughout the community. Under her leadership, Iona has added new programs and services to meet the growing needs of frail and active older adults, people living with chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, baby boomers, and family caregivers. With a strong commitment to improving the quality of life for all older residents of the District and beyond, White also is instrumental in the leadership of the citywide D.C. Senior Advisory Coalition, which she co-chairs, and the D.C. Coalition on Long Term Care.

In the 30 years since White began working in the field of aging, she has witnessed many changes. Back then:

  • People retired in their 60s. Today, people are retiring later, have second careers or continue to work part-time or volunteer in the community. They are looking for meaningful ways to spend the next chapter.
  • Many older adults saw nursing homes as the only option as they aged. Today, there are many options including the increasingly popular aging-in-place village movement. Founded to help seniors live independently as long as possible, Iona was the original village.
  • There was little focus on the caregiver. Today, there are many resources that support family caregivers such as support groups, workplace programs and day programs that provide respite from caregiving.
  • Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s were seen as a death sentence and something to be ashamed of. Daughters typically stayed home with their aging parents. There were few day programs. Today, people talk openly about these illnesses. Programs like Iona’s Wellness & Arts Center, which is bursting at the seams and is expanding, provide engaging activities for people with chronic conditions and much needed respite for their
    family members. As Iona’s staff members frequently say: “Families may see all the things their loved ones can’t do. We see all the things they can do.”
  • It was rare that people lived to 100. Today, there are greeting cards for people who reach that milestone. Videos of older adults running marathons, doing yoga and dancing are shared on social media. There is more of a focus on the benefits of nutrition and exercise, yoga and mindfulness.
  • People didn’t talk much about end-of-life. Now it is an important topic frequently discussed by older adults and their families.

For White, this work is personal. When her father developed dementia, she watched helplessly as her brilliant dad and unbelievably patient and kind mother struggled through the highs and lows and a thousand goodbyes that mark the progression of this terrible
disease. That is what motivates her to identify the best ways to support both older adults and their family caregivers now and in years to come.

Thirty years later, the world and our community are finally catching up to Iona – recognizing the challenges of aging that we face today. White’s vision – that all older adults and their family members can easily find and get the help they need when they need it – is worth celebrating.

Peter Fitzgerald is president of the board of directors of Iona Senior Services.