Date: July 31st, 2016
In this edition of Living Longer & Loving It, we speak to Sue Peschin, MHS, the Alliance’s president and CEO, about the organization’s 30th anniversary. Sue offered her thoughts on the milestone and her vision for what she would like the Alliance to achieve moving forward.
LLLI: What thoughts come to mind when you think about the Alliance’s 30-year anniversary?
It’s been a privilege for me to serve as the leader of an organization that has accomplished so much over the last 30 years. I’m standing on the shoulders of brilliant people and their impactful work. And it’s a pleasure and an honor to build upon that foundation.
That said, I think that we are in an interesting time in history because of the baby boom aging surge. It’s both an exciting time and a worrisome time. I think there is incredible opportunity in terms of what’s happening in aging research overall, as well as innovation in specific age-related diseases.
At the same time, there are constant struggles around funding issues at a federal level to support needed research, especially in areas like Alzheimer’s disease. And as the population ages at a breakneck pace, there is tremendous benefit from what we gain as a society, but also increased need for quality geriatric health care, long-term care, and social support for the senior population. And we’re just not prepared for it.
LLLI: What made you join the Alliance?
I was a lucky young person because I was fortunate enough to know all of my grandparents, on both my mom’s side and my dad’s side and two of my great-grandmothers. I knew one of my great-grandmothers until I was 13 years old, and I have very vivid memories of spending time with her. And some of my grandparents I knew into adulthood. I had a lot of positive exposure to older people and personally gained a lot from it. I was lucky to grow up in a very loving, supportive family where the older adults had matriarchal and patriarchal roles that were highly respected.
At the same time, I saw the struggles that they went through with their health. While aging brings with it many good things in terms of wisdom and stories to share and advice to pass on, our bodies do age. I’ve seen loved ones go through cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, arthritis, and a variety of other issues. And it’s tough. As Betty Davis said, “Old age is not for sissies.”
Their experiences taught me a lot about endurance and the benefits that come with facing struggles with a good attitude and strength. But I also saw that the health care and the long-term care systems don’t always treat our seniors as well as they deserve to be treated, with proper dignity and care. There are blessings, and there are struggles that come with aging. And I was witness to that.
Prior to working at the Alliance for Aging Research, I had the fortune to work for a national Alzheimer’s organization, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). I enjoyed working for the AFA, and that's how I got to know Dan Perry, the founder and former president and CEO of the Alliance. It was through that relationship that we discussed a succession plan for his role at the Alliance. I came over here in 2012 and I’ve considered it a tremendous gift. The Alliance is a special place, and it is life coming full circle for me.
LLLI: What were your visions when you first started compared to your visions for the next few years at the Alliance?
Dan and I had a very unique situation together. Dan wanted to progressively retire, and for the first three years that I was at the Alliance, Dan was also here. I had the opportunity to learn from him, so I didn’t have to start from scratch. At the same time, I was supporting his vision and his plan to gradually finish his time as chief executive at the Alliance. My vision at the beginning was primarily focused on ensuring a smooth transition for both of us and the organization and on getting to know the people and the issues.
My vision now has transformed to focusing on what we need to do to get in front of, and contribute to, the key issues affecting older adults and their family caregivers. We are also asking ourselves, “What are those issues that haven’t yet been recognized, especially in research and innovation, that we can bring attention to and fix with our expertise and passion?”
It’s important for us to be able to pivot from issue to issue because we cover a lot, and we always want to ensure that we’re not replicating what other organizations may already be doing well. We aim to enhance what our partners and friends are doing by helping them see the issues they work on through an aging lens. Our goal is to lift all boats, and then we move on to the next issue that we identify. It’s constantly changing, and I think that’s a valuable aspect of the Alliance: our ability to change course and to cultivate high-level, productive relationships with federal agencies, partner organizations, the general public, and the press along the way. In order for us to do that effectively, we have to keep our eye on where the needs exist.
LLLI: What have been your biggest highlights so far?
It was a terrific experience for us to work with the Gerontological Society of America and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) on the first-ever Trans-NIH Geroscience Summit in 2013. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins spoke at that event, and more than 500 people attended. Fifty experts in the field from around the country presented and developed recommendations. That was tremendously exciting for us to be a part of in such a significant way.
I think our work on The Healthspan Imperative, an award-winning documentary we produced about the issue of geroscience and extension of healthspan, was a solid accomplishment. Certainly, the work we’ve continued to do on NIH funding has been noteworthy. The National Institute on Aging’s (NIA) funding has increased more than any other institute at the NIH. Primarily most of that increase has been devoted to Alzheimer’s disease research at the NIH, which has nearly doubled since 2010. We worked with a number of other organizations to accomplish this, so in no way would we want to take full credit for that. However, we can take credit for serving in a leading role to make sure that it happened.
The Alliance’s efforts, through our Aging in Motion (AIM) coalition, to have an ICD-10-CM code established for the diagnosis of sarcopenia is a groundbreaking step for the aging research field.
The health programs work we’ve done producing incredibly popular and useful pocket films has made medical issues that are otherwise scary or hard to understand very accessible for older adults and family caregivers. Several of them have been adopted by federal agencies and health systems because they are in a medium that’s easy for clinicians to use with their patients.
LLLI: How do you think the Alliance will impact the aging process?
We strive to be the primary voice in support of access to innovation for older adults. We believe that older adult patients’ treatment needs may be unique, but they are as important as anyone else’s treatment needs no matter what age. It is vital for our society to reconcile this concept, so that our older loved ones are treated respectfully and with the utmost care by the health care professionals and the health care systems that we all rely upon. Everyone should have access to opportunities to enhance their health to the greatest extent at every stage of life.