Colleen House

As a young girl growing up in Detroit, Colleen House was lucky enough to know three of her great-grandmothers, not losing the first of them until she was 16.

"I came from a family that had a lot of longevity," she says with a smile. "I knew them very well and we took care of them."

Enjoying the company of older people and helping to meet their needs turned into a career for House, who moved to California in 1970. She worked in the community-based Area Agency on Aging movement, a product of the federal Older Americans Act passed during the Kennedy Administration in the early 1960s.

When Ventura County founded its own Area Agency on Aging in 1980, House became its director--a position she continues to hold.

In 1975 there were 35,000 people older than 60 in Ventura County; today there are 104,000 and the number grows each year. In this interview with DOUG ADRIANSON, editor of The Times Ventura County Edition editorial pages, House describes some of the challenges facing older people in Ventura County.

"I like working with the elderly because they're very candid and they're risk takers," she says. "When you're surrounded by that much wisdom, the training ground for me has been wonderful."

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QUESTION: Tell me about Ventura County's older population and how the Area Agency on Aging looks out for them.

ANSWER: Ventura County has 104,000 people over the age of 60, about 12%, and that number is growing. Our senior population's problems and needs do not differ that much from what happens nationally. Ventura County's fastest-growing segment of the population is 85 years of age and over, another national trend. That's due to the advances that have been made in medicine and the like.

Some of the things that are unique about Ventura County's senior population, perhaps making them a little different from the others up and down the state, fewer of them are poor. They are generally a little bit better educated, have a strong sense of self-determination--they're real mavericks. That's one of the things I find most enjoyable about being able to work with them.

In this generation of senior citizens, they definitely don't want a handout, just a hand. They want to be independent; they want to take care of themselves.

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Q: These are the people who survived the Great Depression, so they are familiar with the idea of being self-reliant and making do with not much.

A: Absolutely. Frequently, when they seek help it's because some bureaucracy has become very complex and very convoluted and they need some assistance to meander that particular maze. It could be a hospital bill they're trying to get paid through Medicare or just in trying to take care of themselves.

The big services we are trying to provide are respite care and day-care. It used to be that you had three generations; nowadays you've got four. Many retirees find themselves with the responsibility of caring for at least one parent. It keeps them from being quite as footloose and fancy-free as they thought they were going to be, which has made for a whole different set of social problems and need to change attitudes.

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Q: What do you mean by "respite"?

A: Any person can stay in their home if somebody cares for them and most families are happy to do this. But every now and then they need a break. That's when somebody else needs to be there to take care of that older person.

Day-care centers are now being established for the elderly the same way child-care centers were established 25 years ago. There are very popular ones in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Ojai. One of the goals of this agency is to establish at least one day-care center in every municipality.

When someone is being cared for by their spouse, even if that spouse doesn't have a job to worry about, just giving that care-giver one afternoon a week free to get to the beauty parlor, to the doctor, to do the marketing without having to rush back and worry--those are the kinds of things we call respite.

We're also looking at ways that a family, if Grandma or Grandpa is living with them, could still get in the car and go to Yosemite for a week and have a safe, pleasant place to leave their older person.

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Q: Are there other needs that aren't being met?

A: The big goal is independence. Many of them have aged in place, in their home, and they're able to stay there with just a little help. But they cannot access the fixed-route transportation that we have in place right now. The most important need is to get people to and from doctor appointments, which usually has to be door-to-door, and someone has to go ring the bell, "We're here to pick you up!"--actually help them down the walkway and into the van, and do the same thing at the doctor's office. In many cases, just that little bit of help is all it takes for someone to be able to remain independent in their home for four or five years as opposed to putting them in a facility, where they're more or less warehoused.

A lot of this transportation used to be provided by neighbors or church groups but liability concerns have made that much less common.

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Q: What other problems are older people facing these days?

A: A new problem that we did not see 15, 16 years ago but is quite evident today is elder abuse, in particular fiduciary elder abuse. This is a very difficult problem to attack because nine times out of 10 the abuser is someone in the family. This problem has escalated with the onset of substance abuse by their children and grandchildren.

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Q: Do most of Ventura County's older people have family here or are there many who have no relatives alive, or at least on this coast?

A: We do find a great deal of that but I think that's the case throughout California; we've all come from someplace else. One of the busiest times of the year for us is right at the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, because people will come out here and see Aunt Mary or see Mom and Dad and it's, like, "Whoa, I didn't realize the extent to which he or she had gone down. I talk to her on the phone every week but I didn't realize the shape of her mobile home, she's unable to get around . . . ."

Another relatively new phenomenon facing the elderly is the escalating divorce rate. Fifteen or 20 years ago it was unheard of that Grandma would walk off and leave Grandpa, but she does that today.

Many women are looking at their lives at age 60 or 62, they're not resigning themselves to the fact that "I'm here." They go to the doctor for their annual physical exam and he tells them, "You've got another quarter of a century left, you're very healthy." And many women are taking the position that, "If I've got a quarter of a century left, I'm not going to live it the way I lived this last quarter of a century." And they strike out on their own.

And that has a domino effect because most care-givers are women. It leaves the man without his care-giver, which creates a whole set of problems for him.

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Q: When I think about 104,000 people of advanced age, I think of all that talent and experience and spare time. Is Ventura County tapping into that resource?

A: Absolutely. You will find a large cadre of volunteers at each senior center, and every municipality has one. You also find that resource in your Retired Senior Volunteer Program. We have several of those, in Thousand Oaks and in the Oxnard / Port Hueneme area. In Ojai, senior volunteers do a community service and rove the area and watch the houses of people who go on vacation.

Two other programs that use that resource are the Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions, where older people work with developmentally disabled youth, problem youth, behavioral problems, to give them one-on-one attention and mentor these children.

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To get involved or learn more about senior programs in Ventura County, call the Area Agency on Aging at 641-4420.

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