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Colleen House

Meeting the Unique Needs of Senior Citizens Is Mission of Agency on Aging's Director

March 22, 1998

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."


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.


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.


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.


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.

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