Q&A: Retiring Agency on Agency chief reflects on successes, worries about cuts

acreamer@sacbee.comJanuary 21, 2013 

The landscape for seniors was a little grim back in 1972, when Deanna Lea joined Sacramento's Community Services Planning Council as a young gerontologist managing the division on aging.

The federal Older Americans Act, designed to provide a safety net of social services for elderly Americans, passed in 1965, but reforms were slow.

Over time, Lea's division was spun off into the Area 4 Agency on Aging, one of 33 such agencies across California. As executive director, she helped put into place a growing list of Older Americans Act services – everything from senior nutrition programs to information and referral services to caregiver respite programs – for adults 60 and older in a seven-county area, including Sacramento.

Now 69, she will retire this spring as the agency's founding director.

The next battle over the federal "fiscal cliff" will take place in March. What is the effect on your agency?

We're worried about three major things in the first quarter of the calendar year. What happens with the fiscal cliff in March? Are discretionary programs going to take a major hit? And Older Americans Act programs will take a hit.

Had a deal not been in place on Jan. 1, we were scheduled to take an 8 to 12 percent reduction in funds. We still have issues with that. And now we also have the debt ceiling and the president's budget.

Your annual budget of about $10 million helps fund programs as diverse as the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program, Ombudsman Services of Northern California and Legal Services of Northern California. What impact would a funding reduction have?

If we have a funding reduction of, say, 10 percent, there won't be any program that's protected. Every service will be vulnerable. The core programs like home-delivered meals are essential, as well as programs helping the most frail. But no one will escape.

It would be a very painful process to eliminate or cut back services. It would be devastating.

But that's not why you're retiring.

We've hired a lot of older staff over time, and one of the things I recognized is that in the next three to five years, we'll have staff people retiring. It would be nice for a new director to put in his or her own people.

And there are a lot of changes happening now. With what's happening with health care and managed care and the Adult and Disability Resource Connection (a federally funded resource on long-term care), it would be nice to have a new director delving into those things and setting policy and direction.

It seemed to me this might be a good time to retire. Before there's enormous change, let's get somebody else in place.

What do you consider your legacy?

Probably the quality of our services and the network of services. The quality of life for seniors has improved. It's really fun. When I'm on the road and I see one of our vans, I can't help but smile.

Somebody is being transported to a nutrition site or to the doctor. I feel good about that.

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