St. Paul’s Senior Services has been a mainstay for senior programs, housing and services in San Diego since the 1960s. The organization takes a holistic approach to serving seniors by providing personal and medical care along with education, advocacy and a culture of inclusion that ensures no one is turned away.
We recently talked with CEO Cheryl Wilson to learn more about how the organization has stayed on top of evolving senior needs, launching innovative programs from wraparound home care to intergenerational day care. The result is a bevy of services that improves the quality of life for San Diego seniors.
St. Paul’s has been serving seniors in the San Diego area for nearly 60 years. What’s the secret to staying relevant over six decades?
Cheryl: We’ve been able to change with the times — to adapt and meet the needs of the community. For instance, when we started in the 1960s, the standards for senior living facilities were very different. Most facilities offered smaller, basic units, and air conditioning wasn’t typical. As that generation aged in place, we added a skilled nursing option for rehabilitation and long-term care. Over time, we expanded rehabilitation services and helped more people return home, which led to the development of our assisted living and, later, memory care programs. These are a few of the many ways we’ve identified the changing needs of our seniors and then proactively addressed them. A lot of the credit belongs to our board. They’ve been unafraid to try new programs if it means serving more people.
What challenges do today’s seniors face?
Cheryl: People may be living longer, but they’re not necessarily living better. Today, there are more seniors with complex health needs and frankly, there are not enough resources to meet those needs. I do think developers have noticed the demand for senior housing, but when it comes to serving specialized populations — those with mental health issues or who are disadvantaged — there’s a gap.
How does your mission come into play with the work you do?
Cheryl: We are spiritually guided and have a strong sense of mission. That’s our backbone, and we share compassion and kindness in everything we do. As an example, our board made a commitment 20 years ago that on any given day, we’d be able to care for any senior who needed us in an emergency situation. We’ve since expanded our programs into a range of care that serves all these growing needs; we offer memory care, assisted living, care management, in-home care, respite for caretakers, emergency services, programs for those who are homeless and more.
St. Paul’s Plaza is a great example of how your programs reflect changing needs. How does the facility address what seniors need and deserve for their care?
Cheryl: With St. Paul’s Plaza, we set out to build a senior living facility based on what my generation would want a decade from now. During the design process, we invited a group of South Bay leaders to weigh in on the plans. They said that the proposed building looked lovely, but they wouldn’t put their parents there. Why? Because they wanted a space that allowed them to participate in their parents’ lives. Based on that feedback, we rethought the building. Now it’s set up like a hotel; we have a pub where people can gather, small dining areas for families and lots of places to congregate. We have private kitchens, and we also have rooms for community meetings so that the greater community comes in to be with and around our seniors.
St. Paul's participates in Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), a Medicare and Medicaid program that helps people meet their health care needs in the community. How does this program and its range of services benefit your clients?
Cheryl: PACE provides all-inclusive care for the elderly — medical, social and home care. It has always served those who were very low-income. Many of these people have nowhere else to turn and they are facing multiple life challenges. PACE aims to take care of their medical issues as well as the personal and social components of that healthcare. Through the program, our staff may not only organize doctor’s appointments, medical and rehab management, and coordinate transportation; they may also provide meals, take people shopping and help with personal care. The results are significant: We did an internal 2010 study that showed that patients in PACE reduced their hospital visits by 73% in the first year. Additionally, in a 2017 survey, 98% of participants reported that they would recommend the program to their friends.
When it comes to innovation, your intergenerational program was one of the first of its kind in California. What spurred the idea of placing a day care program inside a senior center?
Cheryl: We had purchased a building back in the 1990s to care for people with dementia. We ended up with some leftover space, and we had the bright idea that we could also provide some child care. The board was willing to try, even though nothing like this had been done before. We started with a license for 30 children. It turns out we were so good at child care that we have expanded the program to 84 children.
It’s still very popular with families and seniors alike. The children do not see an elderly, handicapped person; they just see a human being. Kids don’t judge if someone is unable to speak or repeats the same story. They love being around the seniors and the seniors love them. It’s a blessing to have a two-year-old at your knee, telling a story and cutting out colored paper.
From a medical perspective, we also see results. We’ll hear anecdotes about a senior who hasn’t spoken in years and is now smiling and talking. The parents of children in the program have reported back that their children socialize with adults more easily than their peers do. In fact, my own grandson went through this program and he’s now in college, working in a senior center. This program taught him kindness and compassion — two characteristics that will benefit him throughout his studies and future career.
Lastly, you routinely help the younger generation explore careers working with seniors. How do you do that and why is it important?
Cheryl: Anytime someone is interested in a career in this industry, I’ll set aside time to talk with them. We provide internships, clinical rotations and high school volunteer hours. We’ve had gerontologists do their medical training at St. Paul’s. I recently spoke with a nursing program about doing a rotation here. We’re exploring how to access funding that helps medical students repay their student loans if they work with our seniors.
I think many people don’t understand all the opportunities available. There are so many ways to serve the senior population, whether you’re working in marketing, helping with public policy or studying medicine. Building a career around seniors is rewarding in so many ways. It builds compassion and teaches kindness, and you also learn a lot from your patients or clients. We all eventually age — it’s inevitable. Putting your education, expertise and time toward making that process more enjoyable, healthy and fulfilling makes for very satisfying work.
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