“What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for?”

LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan posed that question Thursday as she gave a keynote address at the 2020 LeadingAge Annual Meeting Virtual experience, admitting that it “might be the most radical thought of all.”

The pandemic, she said, has been uncomfortable, painful and scary for the long-term care industry, but it also could be what “forces us to grow,” “awakens us from our ignorant slumber” and causes people to “work for change.”

“We do know this: We are not going back to where we were,” Sloan said. “Every flaw and crack in our system has been exposed. The fractures are too great to patch back together. And why would we?”

The CEO shared a long wish list of areas that providers could work toward making realities within the industry and in the world in general:

  • Services, supports and care models that mold to individual needs at any given time, rather than making individuals fit into existing models of care.
  • Transitions between and among services that are not jarring disruptive for older adults, but seamless and natural.
  • A job creation program for long-term care that invests in filling jobs, training and career mobility to build rewarding careers and fuel the economy.
  • A world in which direct care workers are treated as skilled professionals. “It is simply not right to rely on direct care workers, as essential in a pandemic on the one hand and consider them low-skilled workers on the other,” Sloan said.
  • Acknowledgement of the mental strain in addition to the physical strain of long-term care jobs.
  • Intergenerational understanding, appreciation and learning.
  • Senior housing that is safe and affordable so that no older adult is left homeless or “under-housed.”
  • Technology that is accessible and affordable so that every older adult can stay in touch virtually with loved ones.
  • Increased access to affordable quality care and coverage.
  • Increased cultural understanding and competency among healthcare professionals.
  • A focus on elder justice resulting in a “dramatic reversal” in the incidence of elder abuse. 
  • More empathy, understanding and respect for older adults, “that we finally accept and tackle the many examples of ageism in society and consider every generation of older adults the Greatest Generation,” she said.
  • Respect and admiration for people as they are. “Racial discrimination is still a looming problem that cuts deeply into the souls of individuals through entire communities and our country as a whole,” Sloan said.
  • The political will to develop a system to pay for long-term services and supports “in a fair and rational way instead of the unsustainable and inequitable system we have today.”
  • Reimbursement rates that cover basic needs.

Looking for wisdom during the pandemic, Sloan said she did what she normally does in times of crisis: “I seek inspiration from words chiseled in stone.” For her, that meant visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which honor three leaders in times of crisis, “more frequently than usual” and thinking about the men behind them.

The CEO said she found comfort in the words of Roosevelt’s 1941 inaugural address, in which he counseled the country to “pause for a moment and take stock, to recall what our place in history has been, and to rediscover what we are and what we may be,” and in a letter King wrote from jail in Birmingham, AL, when he said “whatever one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Sloan said she found the most comfort in Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, however, when he remarked that nobody had expected the Civil War’s magnitude or duration, but yet “he was unwilling to end carnage until the nation was reunited and slavery was ended.” 

“We need to be the driving force for dramatic changes at the federal, state, local and even community levels,” Sloan said. “Our new job is to be catalysts for change.”

She called for members “to chart a more unified vision moving forward” and asked them to share their thoughts. “I want your ideas, your dreams, your visions,” she said. “We’ll combine those with my ideas and dreams, molding a collective vision, pushing, pulling and prodding to create a different future.”

Award of Honor announced

Sloan also announced that the 2020 winner of LeadingAge’s Award of Honor is “every member of LeadingAge.”

“We bestow this award on one member every year who has provided nationally significant, transformative leadership in aging services. This person shows vision, mission, compassion and courage every day of the year,” she told those watching. “You have all demonstrated remarkable leadership and unbelievable courage in what will likely be remembered as the hardest year of your life.”

The meeting continues next week, Tuesday through Thursday.

woman touches Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan visits the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. Video of the visit was shown Thursday during her talk at the 2020 LeadingAge Annual Meeting Virtual Experience.