Interviews & Profiles

A Q&A with Department of Aging Secretary Jason Kavulich

Kavulich talks with City & State about the department’s new 10-year strategic plan.

Department of Aging Secretary Jason Kavulich

Department of Aging Secretary Jason Kavulich Commonwealth Media Services

The Pennsylvania Department of Aging recently released a 10-year strategic plan aimed at addressing many of the challenges facing older adults in Pennsylvania, including access to housing, a lack of transportation options and connecting aging residents with support services, among other areas of focus. 

Department of Aging Secretary Jason Kavulich spoke with City & State about the department’s new “Aging Our Way PA” plan, the existing services the department offers and how the state can better help older Pennsylvanians in the future.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Shapiro administration just released a 10-year plan seeking to improve services for older Pennsylvanians. What are the most pressing agenda items in this plan that the administration hopes to see come to fruition?

In the commonwealth, older Pennsylvanians said we need to do better. They need help with housing in a variety of ways, from property tax assistance and home modifications to finding affordable housing when they want to relocate. We also need to look at our service delivery in terms of services that are happening in people's homes so they can stay in the community longer and make sure that we're offering a good variety of services. So that's the reality. Transportation always comes up as a challenge for individuals, especially in our rural communities where transportation is limited. So those three big bucket items are part of the 156 tactics that we have identified that we have to work through. 

They’re very much achievable goals. When you look at (Department of Community and Economic Development) Secretary Siger and the work his department is doing, as he's improving the infrastructure of Pennsylvania, as he's building new sidewalks and communities – we're making more age-friendly communities available. We're making communities more livable for older Pennsylvanians. It’s important to relate the two factors to Aging Our Way PA. 

Older Pennsylvanians are one of the largest consumers of our state park system. Not only do they go to state parks more, they volunteer more. Part of our 11,000 volunteers at the Department of Aging do volunteer at state parks. Those volunteers are important to keep that system going, too. Aging Our Way PA ties into every segment of state government. It ties into every segment of life, but it also shows that older Pennsylvanians, yes, they do sometimes need some assistance, but they contribute so much, and it helps us reframe what it means to become older in Pennsylvania and show that it is a positive experience. Older Pennsylvanians are our babysitters, our community volunteers, the people that help us continuously get things over the finish line. They contribute an incredible amount of money to the economy; they own a great deal of the real estate in Pennsylvania. Older adults matter in so many ways that they should not be all labeled as vulnerable and victims and pushed aside as a fragile population – because they're not. 

There are some, just like the people in my age group that are that fit that category, but there are many older adults that live incredibly vibrant lives, contribute tremendously back to their communities, and we couldn't survive without their contributions as a society. So Aging Our Way celebrates that too.

As someone who's worked in this space for a long time, at a very broad level, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing Pennsylvania seniors right now?

When we look at the responses, it's not my guess, it’s what they've told us. They've told us housing comes in first, transportation comes in second, and support services come in third. They are their three biggest needs, and that's what we're trying to address.

Housing issues in Crawford County are not the same as housing issues in Lackawanna County. And the Lackawanna County housing issues aren't the same in Luzerne County. So we need to be nimble in how we respond and support older adults in all of those communities.

There's been a lot of talk over the years about Pennsylvania's population projections. For people who can't visualize this problem, could you describe what this looks like? 

Our population will continue to age – hopefully, thankfully. I don't like to call it a problem. I think there will be challenges in that, infrastructurally, we need to consider the needs of older Pennsylvanians and others as we go forward. You look at some of these wonderful senior living communities that I visited throughout the state – these campuses are beautiful, but if you want to walk off campus in some of the more rural settings, there's no sidewalks. They have what they need, but if they were able to walk into town, it's not necessarily safe because there's no sidewalks. That was a real issue. … Street lighting – a lot of older adults express fear when they talk to us about (how) there's not adequate street lighting in certain places, and they're afraid, they're afraid for their safety.When someone tells you that when you're sitting in front of them and you're at a listening session, it sticks with you, and you're concerned. 

For those that fall into what we call here the near-poor category, those individuals we know that hover around $1,900 a month … the struggle is real because their housing options shrink and affordable housing is not as readily available to them. So even if they want to downsize from the house that they live in and sell off their home and live in a smaller setting, affordable housing that they can live off of the money that they make selling their house isn't readily at their fingertips in their communities. 

So that's a real struggle for them, and the list goes on and on – from cutting your grass to shoveling your snow. A lot of older adults had a lot to say about property taxes, and that's why housing is one of the largest of the areas that we have to focus on. But we can't do that simply as the Department of Aging, we need sister agencies, we need partners from the community to really help solve that challenge, and make some progress and move forward in that space.

One of the priorities in this strategic plan is funding and expanding the department's Long Term Care Ombudsman Program. Could just speak to how additional funding and an expansion of that program could benefit PA seniors?

Ombudsmen is something that we don't talk enough about. It is an incredible program. A lot of people don't even know what it is. Educating the communities on what ombudsman is, but also looking at ombudsmen outside of facilities, and having a voice for services that are provided to older adults so that they can safely bring some of their concerns to someone and help get them resolved in a non-confrontational way.

Being a huge proponent for the rights of older Pennsylvanians, looking at how ombudsmen can be used to enhance all our systems in a lot of ways, is really what we kind of speak to in that sense. That's not part of the first phase of the rollout. That's a strategy to work toward as the plan moves forward.

The areas that we're concentrating on, primarily, are the caregiver toolkit, direct care workforce toolkit and the Pennsylvania Link program – making sure that we're doing an evaluation of the work that we're doing and measuring the work that we're doing, so people really understand the progress that we're making, or where we're struggling to make progress. 

Are there ways that you think the state can do better in terms of making sure it has enough caregivers for its aging population?

There's always room to do better. To be honest with you, I don't believe we will ever be perfect. There's no plateau. We will continue to climb and do better. We need to take better care of our unpaid caregivers, and we need to support our paid caregivers, not just with not just with resources, but with training, with materials that they need to make what they do easier. 

Caregiver fatigue is real. Caregiver burnout is real. We have to talk more about respite services. When you think about it, the average caregiver who's unpaid takes care of a loved one for, on average, 21 hours a week. That’s a part-time job – that’s an unpaid part-time job for many people. You want to make sure those individuals feel supported, that they know that there's resources, that they know they can talk to people and have that peer support who have lived this experience or are living that experience. 

Just to go get your haircut, just to go to that wedding that your coworker is having that you're invited to – those little things in life are important, and we have to make sure that we're talking about real solutions for everyday people and not pie in the sky ideas.

The caregiver toolkit that we're proposing in the first year of the rollout of Aging our Way PA is that toolkit, is what caregivers have been asking us for, and that's why it appears prevalently in the first year, because we know how important it is. Same thing with the Volunteer Toolkit that's in there too. It’s to really keep that volunteer force strong in Pennsylvania and support those volunteers, because in many instances, they're the ones that come in and help us with the caregivers, and help them stabilize and keep them doing what they're doing and preventing them from burning out.

Is there any work that the department is doing right now to connect seniors and older adults to resources? 

The department does a lot of work through the 52 area agencies on aging, and they really are the front door in communities. That's the one great thing about the aging system – is we are such a heavy, community-focused network of services. 

We are the service in the community that the community needs. We're not just: “Here's our model, we're rolling it out. We are responsive to communities, and we build our programs around the communities that our 52 agencies are in. They serve as a connecting point. They serve as a listening point. They serve as that resource for everyone in the community. They may not be able to solve the problem, but you go to your area agency on aging, and it will put you in the hands of someone that can assist you. 

Aside from that, we have great programs here that are continuously going on, like our ombudsman program. We are in every facility in Pennsylvania making sure that older adults have their voice and that their voice is heard. We have our PACE pharmaceutical assistance program that makes sure that those that fall into that category of needing that extra assistance with prescription medication get that life-sustaining medication, and can do so affordably. 

We still are working in protective services to make sure that people not only know about exploitation and abuse and neglect, but that we're investigating it and working with law enforcement so that we can provide them with the assistance that they need to carry out their investigation and do their duty to the older adults. The work here has not stopped. Aging Our Way PA reflects many of the things that we've already been working on. A lot of this is not new. A lot of this, most of this, in fact, is raising up awareness of what we're doing, which older adults have told us loud and clear that we have to do, and bringing it to the forefront. 

Back to Special Report: Aging in PA

NEXT STORY: Five for Friday: Skill Game Summer