Pennsylvania has a new Secretary of Aging: Meet Jason Kavulich
Pennsylvania’s older adults have a new aging representative in Harrisburg, as Jason P. Kavulich has been appointed by Gov. Josh Shapiro, and unanimously confirmed by the legislature, as the new Secretary of Aging. Secretary Kavulich is a 23-year veteran of the Lackawanna County Human Services Department, where he began his career in 1999 as a case worker and worked his way up to director of the Lackawanna County Area Agency on Aging (AAA) in 2016.
As Secretary of Aging, Kavulich will serve and advocate for Pennsylvania’s 3.4 million older adults, aged 60 plus, by supporting a 52-agency network covering 67 counties where services are delivered locally across diverse populations and geographies. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, “he is committed to leading and advocating for an aging network of quality, sustainable programs that support Pennsylvania’s growing older adult population to stay healthy and active, age in their home settings of choice, thrive in their older years with safety and dignity, and contribute to the economic, social and cultural vibrancy of our communities across the Commonwealth.”
A Milestones reporter interviewed Kavulich about his plans for providing services to meet the needs of older Pennsylvanians.
Tell us about your Master Plan for Older Adults.
We are working with PCA and the other 51 AAAs to build out a Master Plan for Older Adults. This will be a 10-year strategic roadmap, designed by Pennsylvanians for Pennsylvania. The focus is aging in place. We want people to age in place in their communities with the dignity that they deserve. We want them to be able to live among their loved ones and friends with the services and supports needed to function at the highest level that they possibly can. We will be conducting meetings in the 67 counties across the state to determine which services, whether home-delivered meals or even senior centers, are the most appropriate. It’s good to be part of an effort that will unite all of us with one voice so that we can make sure that the people we serve have the best delivery system possible.
The beauty of the aging system is that there are 52 Area Agencies on Aging with a variety of names and structures. Each local Area Agency on Aging was designed with the flexibility to meet its own community’s unique needs. What we need in the northeast is different than what we need in Philly. There’s no cookie-cutter method in which we can do this. No two counties are exactly the same. This is a living document. This is something that will evolve over time because needs change. No one saw the pandemic coming. If there’s ever another situation like that, we need to be able to pivot and serve in a different way.
How will you define success?
We’re all here for the people. This is a person-centered delivery system. We would define success by the improvement in our practice. We want to make it clear that we’re protecting and serving older adults. We want to make sure that we’re delivering systems that truly help them age in place. We need to have alternatives for when direct care workers are not able to be found, and make sure that older adults can receive some form of service that will keep them safe in their homes. We need to make sure that senior centers continue to do what they’ve done for 50-plus years. We call it “battling social isolation” right now, but it’s what we’ve always done. It’s the connectivity. Senior centers remain resources to the communities they serve. People have their nutritional, physical and behavioral health needs met.
What priorities most affect older Philadelphians?
What Philadelphians want, like most older Pennsylvanians, is to live in their homes forever. They don’t want to worry about if they’re going to have a direct care worker, if they’re going to show up or if they’re not going to be there for three days. They want to know that those services will be in place. They don’t want to have to worry about if their senior center is going to close or if they’re not going to get a meal. I think those are the things that really weigh on people’s minds. They worry about access to health care. Those very basic needs are really what everyone’s most concerned with. We want to make sure that people can rest easy knowing that we’re all there pulling for them and making sure that those services are available so they can stay in their homes and age in place.
What is the greatest challenge for aging Pennsylvanians?
Pennsylvania is diverse in many ways, and we need to make sure that what we do represents all Pennsylvanians. That’s a hurdle that we will have challenges with. We want to make sure that we’re respectful in that space and that we give different avenues to different populations to make sure that they know that they’re part of this.
Three basic principles that the Department of Aging and the aging network should always be focused on are advocacy, sustainability and quality. If we continue to stay on this person-centered path, the hurdles that we face will fall before us because we’re working together to tackle them.
How has COVID-19 impacted older Pennsylvanians?
In some ways, it’s empowered some folks. And, it’s scared some folks. The economic challenges are there, as we fight inflation. For people trying to get by on really fixed incomes, having their SNAP (food assistance) benefits taken away is a huge challenge to an older adult. We have to have the resources and the team to pivot to help everybody. We have no other option but to work together to try to solve these issues.
What resources are available to help older Pennsylvanians?
Our traditional services have not been altered. The first place to start is with your local AAA. (In Philadelphia County, contact PCA at 215-765-9040 or go to pcaCares.org.) You can sit down with a staff member to talk about your needs or your family member’s needs. From there, you can determine if you’re going to be part of the Caregiver Support Program, a consumer reimbursement program, traditional agency-based personal care, home-delivered meals, PACE (medication and social services), and/or senior centers – there are so many services available. It all starts with a phone call. There is staff there who have always been, and always will be, the most supportive advocates for older adults in any community. They can help you make a plan for that person, and that person’s family, to get them the help they truly need.
What safety nets are in place for older adults living in poverty?
The Waiver services are available. SNAP benefits and other nutrition programs. There are still home-delivered meals. There’s always a senior center you can go to any day of the week. The traditional, tried and true, services remain in place. Getting connected to these services can really make a difference in someone’s life.
What role will technology play in the future of aging services?
Technology will continue to play a bigger role every day. Even me, at age 47, I sometimes find myself behind the times in technology. I don’t think it’s about a person’s age; it’s about how fast the world is moving. For older adults, the learning curve could be steep. It depends on where you come from in this world. Folks that have worked and are recently retired are used to the technology space. Someone who has not experienced that may not be familiar with technology. Thankfully, there are resources at every public library and senior center to help older adults learn and become comfortable using technology.
I’m a big proponent of telemedicine for older adults. Think about a worker in the field using telemedicine to connect an older consumer with behavioral health services. That’s a huge resource. Some of the skilled facilities don’t have a geriatric psychiatrist at their facility. A patient in Philadelphia County can connect virtually with a doctor in Allegheny County. We’re just touching on it. The possibilities are endless. It’s going to be a game-changer for us – not just in emergencies, but in everyday work. It can help keep people out of already congested emergency rooms, while still getting them quality care and helping to combat some of the health disparities that have existed for a long time.
How will aging services be inclusive of all cultures?
We have to continually educate and pay attention to the local community to find a way to help them meet their needs. We are a very diverse state. Empowering families and grandchildren to help their older loved ones connect with services to bridge the language barrier has to be a priority. These are the solutions we come up with to try to serve people the best we can. Diversity, equity and inclusion are really at the heart of what we do. And they have to be because the face of Pennsylvania is changing for the better. We are addressing those changes.
How can we prepare for aging?
No one is ever prepared. When it happens, you are almost paralyzed. Start the conversation early. We should keep the conversation out in the open and continue honest dialogue about resources, expenses and seeking out professional help when you can. There are free legal services in Philadelphia that really can help guide people to be prepared and to make informed decisions.
What advice do you have for isolated older adults?
Reach out. Just make one call to your AAA. Tell them you feel like you’re not connected and that you need to reconnect. Someone will help get you connected. You can always walk into a senior center. You don’t have to stay. Come in for a grab-and-go meal a few times a week to see if you like it, see if you make a friend. Give things a chance. People are there to help you. People are there who want you there. We’ll help you get connected with a community group or church group in your area. We understand that having faith in someone’s life plays a big part in combatting social isolation.