14. Ramsey Alwin, CEO of the National Council on Aging: Holiday Safety Tips During COVID-19

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Show Notes

In this episode, National Council on Aging President and CEO Ramsey Alwin talks about how older adults can stay safe and connected this holiday season, and provides updates on NCOA initiatives. 

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hello, I’m Sue Peschin, President and CEO of The Alliance for Aging Research and you’re listening to This Is Growing Old. On today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with Ramsey Alwin, the new president and CEO of The National Council on Aging. Ramsey is going to talk about how older adults can stay safe and connected this holiday season, as well as recent National Council on Aging initiatives. Ramsey, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ramsey Alwin:

Thanks so much for having me.

Sue Peschin:

Absolutely. It’s our pleasure. First, congratulations on becoming CEO at The National Council on Aging. I know you’ve only been in the position for a little over two months and in a especially challenging year, so how are things going so far?

Ramsey Alwin:

Well, I’m thrilled to be back at NCOA. You know, this is my second tour. I was at NCOA for about seven years as the vice-president of economic security programs, then spent a little time over at AARP, and it’s just wonderful to be back. The mission is just something I strongly believe in. Improving the lives of older adults is so important, especially during this unprecedented time in our history. I have a deep passion for ensuring that every older American has the resources to age well and we have an incredible opportunity right now to take the organization to the next level. We have a solid foundation to make aging a true social justice issue so all older adults can get the health and economic security support they deserve to age with dignity, purpose and security.

Sue Peschin:

Excellent. Thank you. All right. So, what… What have been some of NCOA’s priorities since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

Ramsey Alwin:

Well, we all know that COVID-19 has greatly impacted older adults and those who care for them in so many different ways, and NCOA’s priorities have included providing trusted information to older adults and their caregivers, listening to and supporting our local community-based partners who are serving older adults in community and advocating at the federal policy level. Through our websites and web properties, we’ve provided COVID resources, actually a COVID Resource Center that features articles and videos on how to stay healthy, safe and connected with loved ones. Our benefitscheckup.org website connects people who are struggling financially, impacted by the economic implications of the pandemic, identifying programs that can help them pay for daily expenses.

Ramsey Alwin:

We’re also providing tips for local agencies and aging network professionals on who they can engage and how they can pivot in terms of providing online services, virtual programs, to continue to serve older adults when we’re all trying to stick to the CDC guidelines and physically distance. On the national level, we’re advocating for older adults, especially older people of color whose lower income and vulnerability has made them highly susceptible to the pandemic. And finally, we’re advocating to prioritize equitable access to the COVID vaccine. Safe, cultural competent access and education is critical.

Sue Peschin:

That’s terrific. That’s so amazing. I know my group, The Alliance for Aging Research, always loves partnering with NCOA. We look to you all, especially for the fabulous work you do for lower income older adults. What’s your vision for the organization beyond COVID-19?

Ramsey Alwin:

Well, thanks for asking. I absolutely believe that aging and aging well, the quality of years, the quantity of years, it’s a social justice issue. We have to look at our investments, our programs, our systems, to ensure that people are able to live a life of health and economic security on their terms, regardless of income, age, education, race, ethnicity, gender. We’re all living longer than the outdated programs that are currently in place and it’s time for a serious look at our public policies and the social contract.

Ramsey Alwin:

NCOA interacts with older adults directly and through community-based organizations every day. We understand their needs, their pain points, the issues and struggles. And because of this, we can bring forward a bolder policy advocacy agenda, and we’ll do that through collaborative leadership. We know we can’t do it alone. Multi-sector partnerships, partnerships with organizations such as yours, are so critical so that we can all make aging well the reality for everyone.

Sue Peschin:

The holiday season looks different this year for everyone because of the pandemic, but especially for older adults. What is NCOA recommending to your audience for staying safe but also connected this holiday season?

Ramsey Alwin:

Well, we know the holidays are difficult this year for family and for older loved ones. It’s a favorite time of year for so many of us, and this year we’re all struggling with how different things will be. But with the COVID cases surging again across the country, it’s imperative to keep our older adults safe. The best way to prevent the spread is to follow the CDC guidelines for safe holiday activities. Celebrating with members of your household or virtually with members of your extended family pose the lowest risk for spread. And this is especially true for people age 65 and older with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

Ramsey Alwin:

We have some thoughts on lower risk activities. Having a small dinner with only people who live in your household, preparing traditional family recipes for family and neighbors and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others, posting or participating in a virtual dinner and sharing favorite recipes with friends and family, shopping online rather than in person for holiday food and gifts. And of course, watching sports, parades and movies all can be done from home safely.

Ramsey Alwin:

As always, we must all adhere to the very important safety precautions during the holidays and beyond, as tough as it may be. Wear that face mask at all times in public and when around people not in your household. Keep six feet apart from people not in your household and wash hands frequently.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. That’s really practical, good advice. I think it is going to be different for a lot of folks. I think it’s terrific that you all have come up with sort of a list of things to consider, but at the same time, also make sure you see your relatives, whether it’s just virtually or through the phone, not to kind of stay alone and lonely, but to reach out.

Sue Peschin:

Tell us about NCOA’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which we understand is the nation’s only jobs program that’s specifically for low income older adults. And then, can you also tell us a little bit more about how unemployment due to the pandemic has particularly hit older adults?

Ramsey Alwin:

Work is such an important topic. As we all get the gift of longevity, many of us want and need to work longer, and so getting the proper job training, job placement support is so essential. The Senior Community Service Employment Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and it matches eligible older adults with part-time training assignments for nonprofit organizations. Participants in the program build skills and self-confidence while earning a modest income. For most, their CSEP experience leads to permanent employment.

Ramsey Alwin:

Now, given the economic impact of the pandemic, work issues are front and center for many older workers. Unemployment rates for workers age 55-plus have remained higher than those of mid-career workers throughout the entire pandemic, the first time since 1973 that this has happened for more than six months according to The New School Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

Ramsey Alwin:

At NCOA, we’re advocating that older adults have wider access to job training and placement programs like CSEP, which at peak funding level only reached 1% of those eligible. There’s so much need and CSEP is an essential lifeline for those that are able to participate, enabling them to re-enter the workforce quickly when the pandemic ends. But we need more support, more investment in job training and job placement for older workers that want and need to continue to work.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. Are people able to direct donations to this program specifically if they want to support it?

Ramsey Alwin:

Absolutely. So, as a part of the giving season, NCOA is looking for additional support as we try to expand our reach. We find there are so many individuals that come looking for assistance around job training and support that, given the limited resources, we’re not able to support or the strict income eligibility guidelines, we’re not able to assist. And so, we are thinking about ways to expand upon our existing efforts to be able to reach a broader group of needs, and support to ncoa.org will certainly help us do that.

Sue Peschin:

I’m going to switch gears a little bit and ask a question we ask everybody who comes on our show. So, when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Ramsey Alwin:

I love this question. And when I think about my exposure to older adults as a kid, it really is a reflection of my community. I grew up the daughter of a lobster fisherman, so my first job was on the boat as first mate. I would bait and band for my father on the lobster boat and I would be down at the pier, hanging out with the fellow fishermen in their seventies, eighties, still fishing, still out on the water, living life on their own terms, enjoying the wonders of Mother Nature every day. And it was just a beautiful thing. But when I’d look in their faces, it was a hard life, a hard life. They worked because they wanted to work. They loved it. But it took a toll on their body as well. And I used to think that there just wasn’t something quite right about a system where individuals felt they had to continue to work until their very last breath.

Ramsey Alwin:

And so, even at an early age, I started to sort of understand that there was something at play there, something that could be different. So, I saw early hard work, play by the rules maybe doesn’t always pan out in the way that one might hope, and I was resolved to do different, to take a different path. And then, with the gift of taking a different path, getting into the nonprofit sector, becoming an advocate, a policy wonk, I see this as a gift but also a responsibility to make the world a better place so that not everyone has to continue to work, that everyone has an opportunity to age with the dignity, the security, the purpose that they so deserve.

Sue Peschin:

That’s… That’s awesome. I love it. I love how you were inspired to go into your work because of how you grew up, and so cool that you did… I want to hear more some other time about that experience. That sounds really interesting and fun. So, what… What do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Ramsey Alwin:

Well, I love, as I become more seasoned, more experienced, the freedom, the liberation that it is to know enough to know better, to be able to decide what it is I want to invest my time, my energy in. As I reflect in particular… When I did lose my dad, it gave me a great deal of clarity, a better understanding of this gift of time we have on the earth and how we need to make the most of every moment that we have available, how we have a responsibility to give back and bend the curve on disparities or inequalities or social justice issues. And as I get older, as I have more perspective on what matters and what doesn’t matter, I just become clearer and clearer on my charge and more empowered to say no to things that may seem important in the moment but in the long term, maybe are not the best use of time, resources and passion.

Ramsey Alwin:

And so, with that… I mean, generally it’s just that feeling of not sweating the small stuff, understanding there’s a greater purpose, an opportunity, and feeling empowered to say no.

Sue Peschin:

Great way to end. I love it. Ramsey, thank you so much for being on our show today. It’s been really wonderful talking to you and I… I know you’re just going to take NCOA to the next level and can’t wait to find excuses to work together. So, thank you.

Ramsey Alwin:

And thank you for your leadership. It’s such a pleasure to have joined you today and I look forward to our collaborations.

Sue Peschin:

Thanks everybody so much for listening to This Is Growing Old. We encourage you to follow The Alliance on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visit agingresearch.org to learn more about age-related conditions, diseases and issues that impact the health of older Americans. If you’re enjoying our show, please subscribe now and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. And happy holidays to you and your family. Have a great day, everybody.