Touching the lives of older adults: My 44-year journey

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By Louis Colbert, PCA chief operating officer and senior vice president

As I near my retirement from Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) after 44 years in the field of aging services, I look back on my journey and reflect on the progress that has been made in aging services.

I grew up in a home with my maternal grandmother, parents and six siblings. My “Nana” was a valued and influential member of the Colbert family and an important part of the first 26 years of my life. I was in high school before I realized everyone did not have a grandparent living in their home. Clearly, it’s not by chance that my career was devoted to aging services. Often, I would ask myself the question, “How would this (policy or program) impact Nana?” My parents and the older adults in my church taught me the importance of service. It is in my DNA.

After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, I earned my Master of Social Work (MSW) from Temple University. That is where my time serving older adults started, in 1976, with a field placement at my first Area Agency on Aging (AAA): the Delaware County Office of Services for the Aging (COSA). COSA Director Jack Bauer and Deputy Director Barbara White were tremendous mentors for a young social worker. They taught me how to find creative solutions to problems and that change is inevitable.

In the early days of my career when I was stuck with a problem, I would head out to one of the senior centers in Chester for lunch and sit down with the older adults, many of whom knew my Nana and grandfather from the local Black Baptist faith community. They shared advice, experience and, best of all, unconditional love. It was important that I succeeded, and they wanted to share the wisdom they learned over the years. It was a priceless life lesson I received. What you learn about older adults when you go into the community is a critical part of social work.

PCA was my second AAA. Here, I was exposed to the best two mentors anyone could hope for. PCA’s first President and CEO Rodney D. Williams was brilliant and generously shared his knowledge. My boss, former Director of Program Management, Toni Clemmons, prepared me for my future in executive leadership.

Over four decades, I have been involved in statewide committees; chaired the board of directors of the American Society on Aging; and co-created with my dear friend Dr. Norma Thomas the Center on Ethnic and Minority Aging, a nonprofit that provided a different cultural perspective on training and learning in the regional aging network. I was also honored to represent Philadelphia at the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, where President Barack Obama spent 45 minutes addressing the gathering. To be that close to the first Black president of our nation was indescribable and a high point in my career.

It has been a privilege to use my position in the aging network to create visibility for older adults and their caregivers, especially in communities of color. Caregiving has been a part of my life, as my parents instilled the importance of caring for those in your family and community. As a former caregiver for my mother, along with my siblings and nieces, I have used my voice to share the experiences of caregiving in communities of color.

As I look to close this chapter and retire from PCA on May 3, I do so with tremendous pride. It has been so rewarding to work with PCA’s new President and CEO Najja Orr, my fellow Morehouse brother, and with my successor, Shaunise Spivey, chief operating officer. I feel PCA is in great hands as it moves into a new era of serving older adults.

As I near retirement, I am compelled to emphasize the importance of mentoring the future leaders in the field of aging, as well as giving a voice to those in our communities who are voiceless. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that disparities exist for our diverse older adults and these inequalities have real consequences. We must continue to fight for those who do not have a voice in this complex system called the aging network.

My career has been a blessing and a blast, and I am humbled by the opportunity to serve. At the end of the day, I feel confident that somebody’s life – older adult, colleague, student or caregiver – is better off because our lives touched and our paths crossed.

Sincerely,

Louis Colbert
SVP of Operations, Philadelphia Corporation for Aging

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