Aldersgate OnAir – LeadingAge NC

Tom Akins: Hey, this is Tom Akins with LeadingAge North Carolina. You’re listening to Aldersgate OnAir.

[Music starts]

Mike Peacock: Welcome back, friends, to Aldersgate OnAir. As we all know, the aging services industry is an ever-evolving universe full of challenges and complexities. Yet, at the same time, highly rewarding with exciting opportunities and the possibility to literally change lives.

Leading the charge to improve the quality of life of our seniors and move the industry forward is the organization known as LeadingAge. This association represents the full continuum of not-for-profit organizations that are driven by a higher moral purpose to help positively transform the field from the ground up so older adults can age in place at home safely and with dignity.

We are joined today by the president and CEO of LeadingAge North Carolina, Tom Akins. With a career in the industry spanning over 25 years, Tom provides tremendous insight into the inner workings of LeadingAge and its role in advocacy, education, research, and networking.

Also joining us today is everyone’s favorite chief brand strategy and community engagement officer, Aldersgate’s own Brooks Shelley.

Tom and Brooks share with us their perspectives on the rapidly shifting demographics of the industry, the ongoing workforce struggles, the challenges they face with changes in tax legislation, and the omnipresent battle with COVID, including the new Delta variant and vaccination protocols. They also share some ideas on what we can all be doing to help move things forward.

So, stick around for this highly informative and entertaining conversation. You’ll thank me later. I promise.

Now, let’s say hello to our guests. Hi, Tom. Welcome to the show. I’m excited to talk to you.

Tom: Thanks, Mike. Been waiting for this all week, and it’s only Monday.

Mike: Woo-hoo. Yeah, it’s only Monday.

Tom: Yeah.

Brooks Shelley: [Laughter]

Mike: Of course, where would we be without Brooks Shelley? Brooks, always awesome to talk to you.

Brooks: Same with you, sir. Welcome, Tom.

Tom: Thanks, Brooks.

Mike: We’re going to do a lot of chatting about LeadingAge and some really cool things that are going on with that organization. But if you wouldn’t mind, Tom, first, why don’t you give us a little bit of background on yourself? How did you come into the industry, and how did you end up at LeadingAge?

Tom: Sure. About 11 years ago, I moved to North Carolina from Kansas, where I had worked in the aging services field for about 15 years. The position opened up with LeadingAge North Carolina, and I headed to the Tar Heel state and have not regretted it at all.

My background is in public policy. I’d worked for a congressman, although I don’t admit that to a lot of people anymore but had worked in the legislative process for a while and kind of combined that with my love for aging services.

Mike: Awesome. Well, I’m looking at your bio. There’s a lot of really cool things that you’ve got going on here. Of course, you are the president and CEO of LeadingAge North Carolina currently, correct?

Tom: That’s correct. You bet. You bet.

Mike: Awesome. Well, for those folks who may not be 100% familiar with exactly what functions LeadingAge serves, would you mind educating our listeners on that?

Tom: Sure. LeadingAge is a professional association of nonprofit retirement communities located in North Carolina. We’re part of a larger LeadingAge national organization, which has about 6,000 members across the United States and serves about three million people.

Like many professional associations, we work for our membership. As nonprofit retirement communities, working for them means that we spend a lot of time at the General Assembly in Raleigh advocating for good, public policy on behalf of residents and staff at our member communities.

We also do education throughout the year. We have an annual conference that’s coming up in Wilmington (if we can get that pesky Delta variant to pay attention and not go too crazy). That’s August 17th through 20th. We’ll have about 500 people there, and that’ll be our opportunity to provide information and resources to our members at that annual conference.

Then we do education during the year for our communities as well. That education takes the place of everything from working with our chief financial officers to our frontline staff really trying to provide the latest trends for our communities so that they can serve their residents in a better way.

It’s probably apocryphal, but that great story about Wayne Gretzky’s dad talking about why Wayne was such a great hockey player was not because he skated to where the puck was. It’s because he skated where the puck was going to be. That’s really what we try and do with our membership. We try and provide them with advice about where it is that they ought to be going, and so that advocacy and that education is a big piece of that.

I’ll tell you the two other things about our association that I think are unique, as I visit with others. One of those is that we really see it as our role to try and connect our members not only with each other but with other folks within the field. Brooks can tell you this; this is a group of people that just really enjoy being with each other, and so a part of what we try and do is to facilitate that connection.

The other thing that we do – and I’m going to brag on him a little bit here – if you talk to folks around the country, you will find that Aldersgate is the leader in any number of things, but really in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They, as much as any community in this country, really have shown us the way.

We have a separately incorporated foundation. Their sole mission is to support LeadingAge North Carolina. At this point, their main priority is around trying to develop resources and tools and conservations for our member communities to have around diversity, inclusion, and equity. There’s just nothing that is more important for our communities right now and so, as an association, that’s one of the major things that we’re trying to do.

Mike: Yeah. Brooks, obviously, I know that’s right up your wheelhouse, as you and I have talked extensively about that over the last year and a half or so. Was there anything else you wanted to add to that?

Brooks: We rely heavily on LeadingAge, both statewide and national. Tom is exactly right. When we started our diversity, inclusion, and equity journey, education was exactly what was needed.

We found that there were a lot of our team members, constituents, residents that just didn’t know what they didn’t know and had always just heard periphery items that were on TV and on sitcoms and stereotypical. That was the only exposure they had to any of these issues or any of these terms. Getting in front of them early and doing the educational piece was key, especially in Aldersgate’s journey.

I appreciate the compliments, Tom. We are nowhere near where we want to be. It’s an ongoing journey. It will be constant, and we look forward to it. We’ve made great progress, but we’ve got more to do.

Tom: Yes.

Brooks: Fortunately, we’ve got LeadingAge to lean on and LeadingAge has us.

Tom: Yeah. Yeah. You’re right, Brooks. This is a journey. There’s no endpoint that’s out there, but I know that as we have tried to figure out how we can be a resource, here’s what we know. At the end of the day, if you’ve got a community that is more diverse, you’re going to be better – across the board.

Brooks: Exactly.

Tom: Not just with your business model, but as a place for folks to live and work and be a part of the larger community. For that, for us, that’s what that equation is really about.

Mike: That’s a great segue then into the next thing I wanted to bring up with you, which is the fact that the demographics, they’re shifting, they’re changing, they’re moving. As it stands now, what do you think about the future of the aging population in North Carolina? Where is it going?

Tom: Yeah. Nationally, if you look at things, we’ve probably all seen that statistic there about 11,000 folks turning 65 every single day, and that number is just going to continue for about the next 20 years.

In North Carolina, last year (for the first time) we had more people over the age of 60 than we had under the age of 18. That has huge implications for us not only as a field in terms of how many folks there are out there to serve but has huge implications for society in terms of our tax base and how we’re going to fund things because we’ve got a whole lot more people that are pulling resources out of the system and fewer people that are putting resources into that system. For us, what it means is trying to figure out, from a tax policy standpoint, the kinds of things that we can do moving forward.

The other thing, I’ll tell you, Mike, that’s just so interesting to me is that, for us, this is not like, “Oh, my gosh! There are all these people that are turning 65, and there are going to be so many more people that are old. How are we going to serve them”

This is a great opportunity for us and for communities like Aldersgate who know what the heck they’re doing. Right? They’re going to have more and more people that are coming their way. While there are workforce challenges, which we’ll probably talk about a little bit later—

Mike: Yeah, for sure.

Tom: –this demographic and the wealth of knowledge and expertise that older adults in our society have is just going to be key.

Here’s the other thing that, for me, when we talk about demographics, I think is fascinating. I’m having this conversation with my dad. He passed away about three years ago of Alzheimer’s. Before he died, I said, “Dad, we’re having this big debate within the field about what do we call old people.”

Mike: [Laughter]

Tom: I said, “What do you want to be called? Do you want to be called elderly or aged or a sage? What do you want to be called?”

My dad looked at me, and he said, “I want to be called Keith.” Right?

Mike: Yeah.

Tom: It’s this desire on the part of everybody to figure out how you’re still treated as an individual when you move forward. Again, there’s lots of cool stuff going on at Aldersgate, lots of cool stuff going on within the field statewide. But one of those challenges that face us is that with all these people that are coming towards us, how do we continue to make that an individual experience for every person that’s out there?

Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Brooks, that’s something that I’ve seen firsthand when I visit Aldersgate is looking at the way people are approached and the way people are engaged. That’s something that your team does very well is engaging with the residents. Are you finding that the demographic shifts are affecting the way that your staff is interacting with the residents?

Brooks: Well, it may be a facet of my own aging because the age gap between where I am right now and actually becoming a resident is getting shorter.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: There are a lot more great conversations I personally have. I like to tell people I have yet to come into work. I just come in and get to see all my friends. But there is a story, multiple stories in every person that’s here.

We did a production several years ago called Acting Our Age. It had seven residents that wrote their stories down and got together as a group with a gerontologist for about a year and a half. They recounted everything and, even though they came from different ethnic backgrounds, geographical backgrounds, everything, there was a common thread and they could always find the common thread between them.

Yeah, we are being pushed happily, willfully, in the right direction with the new demographic age group that’s coming in. It is an effort not to institutionalize.

As an industry, I think we have pretty much just done a disservice of meds are at this, we eat at this time. Make it individual. You’ve made it to this point in life. You deserve to have an individual experience that’s exactly what you want.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think the population we’re starting to see – correct me if I’m wrong – folks of a younger age group are starting to consider moving into CCRCs, and they do things like watch all the food channels and watch all the documentaries. They’re more savvy about what’s out there.

Tom: Yeah. Yeah.

Mike: The things that were acceptable 20, 30 years ago, people are like, “Hell, no! No!”

Brooks: Exactly.

Mike: “I’m not up for that.”

Tom: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, let me give you a specific example of that. We’ve got a marketing company that serves a number of communities around the country in this space. They did focus groups with about a thousand 65-year-olds who had expressed an interest and were age and income appropriate to live in a CCRC – all that stuff.

Anyway, they put in front of them eight different amenities and they asked them to rank those eight in terms of what would make them more likely to move to a CCRC. Right? Dead last on the list, number eight was food, which doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, right? [Laughter]

Mike: Right.

Tom: But what they told them was, “Look. We are from a different generation.” I don’t know about you guys. Growing up, every night we ate dinner around the table. Now, I can probably count on both hands the number of times I eat at home in a month.

The folks that are coming towards us are not necessarily going to say, “I want you to feed me every meal, to make available. I don’t want that.” Number one on the list, the number one amenity that folks said would make them more likely to move to a CCRC was access to high-speed Internet.

Mike: Wow.

Tom: Which just tells you that this demographic is changing and it’s a field we have to make sure that we are providing the kinds of things that folks that are coming our way tell us they want. I know Brooks sees this.

The folks that are coming to us now, they cut their teeth in the ’60s. It was protests. If there was something you didn’t agree with, man, you wrote letters, and you raised hell. You did all this kind of stuff, which is different than the demographic that we dealt with in the past.

In addition to just the sheer numbers that are coming at us, consumer preferences are really changing.

Mike: Yeah.

Brooks: To your point, Tom, the embracing of technology was such a godsend to us at Aldersgate because all of our independent living residents get an iPad when they come in. We’re using that, called Wellzesta, that gives the schedule, the dining menu. You can connect with others. You can do a whole bunch of stuff on it.

Then COVID hit, and we were telling our residents to do the exact opposite of what we’d been telling them forever of, “Don’t socialize. Don’t get out. Stay indoors.” That connection was lost. That social connection was completely lost.

Fortunately, all of them had their iPads, so we were able to keep them engaged and keep them at least feeling relevant because here we are with a virus that attacks that demographic the worst. And so, we were feeding content like virtual tours of museums in France, and just different things to constantly keep them going. It really made a huge difference for us on the isolation factor.

Mike: Yeah. I think embracing technology has been a huge thing. We’ll talk about COVID a little bit later on, again to kind of dig deeper into that. Absolutely.

I guess the moral of that story is you’ve always got to pay attention to those demographic shifts, pay attention to shifts in culture, what’s going on in the world, what are people embracing, what are they comfortable with. We are finding that a lot of people are now acting in ways and embracing things that just weren’t a part of the past.

Moving on from there, Tom, let’s talk a little bit about the average CCRC in North Carolina. Now, there are the for-profits and there are the non-for-profits. They have their different regulatory environments and economic impacts. Let’s just take a dive into that, if you will.

Tom: Sure. There are 61 continuing care retirement communities (like Aldersgate). Although, there’s really no place that’s quite like Aldersgate.

Mike: Yeah, no place. Not like Aldersgate.

Tom: Right.

Brooks: [Laughter]

Tom: Right, but there are 61. Forty-eight of those are nonprofit. There are 13 for-profits, and there are differences between that nonprofit and for-profit business model. We think, traditionally, you’re going to find higher staffing levels at nonprofits.

The biggest difference is that for-profit has a dividend that they’ve got to pay back to their investors. There’s nothing wrong with making money. That’s not what I’m saying here.

What I am saying is that, for nonprofits like Aldersgate, there’s no time horizon for them. They’re not doing things based upon the fact that, “I think we’re going to sell in ten years. We’re going to sell in 15 years.” Right? Their time horizon is limitless and it’s about serving the residents that are there.

All of those CCRCs in North Carolina are licensed by the Department of Insurance. Without getting way down in the weeds on this one, I think the thing that residents and prospective residents of CCRCs should take comfort from is that North Carolina has the stiffest set of regulatory requirements in the country. That’s not a bad thing for consumers or for communities because, over the years, because there’s an annual discloser statement that CCRCs have to file and, more importantly, there’s a reserve requirement in which communities like Aldersgate have to segregate in a certain form, a certain amount of their annual operating revenues. What it’s done over the years is just to make for a really financially secure set of communities, which I think consumers that we talk to take a great deal of comfort in.

When you put all that together, we worked with the University of North Carolina Business School about four years ago on an economic impact study. What we said was, “Look. Tell us what the economic impact of CCRCs is on the state of North Carolina’s economy.”

They assembled all kinds of data. What they found out is that we’ve got about 22,000 residents at CCRCs in North Carolina that are served by about 16,000 staff. Their annual economic impact on the state is about $2.4 billion every year.

Then we said, “Okay, that’s great. Go out 20 years and let us know what you think it’s going to look like.” In 20 years, they think that we’ll have about 30,000 staff serving 35,000 residents with an annual economic impact that’s just a little north of $3.5 billion a year.

What we have said to policymakers is, “Look. If you had a business in the state of North Carolina that employed 16,000 people and impacted directly (a lot more indirectly but impacted directly) 22,000 North Carolinians that had an annual impact on the State’s economy of almost $2.5 billion, you would be doing everything you could to make sure that that field was successful.” When we talk about advocacy issues – and we’ve got a couple that we’ll touch on – that’s really what we try and say to policymakers.

If you look at advocacy 101, it’s really about nothing more than recognizing that government, at the end of the day, is about making choices. Right? And so, what our role is and what we try and involve folks like Brooks and residents like those at Aldersgate in the legislative process is about trying to provide policymakers with good information, trying to provide them with the information that they need (at the end of the day) to make good choices. We think, as we talk to different folks, that that investment—whether it’s through specific regulations or through tax policy, whatever—that investment the State makes in CCRCs is good not only for the residents and staff that live there, but it’s good for the state as well.

Mike: Yeah. No, that’s fantastic. You kind of touched on it a little bit. I think it’s probably a good time now. We’re talking about some current issues.

Tom: Sure.

Mike: On the top of that list, I would say, probably is COVID, especially with the Delta variant floating around out there. There’s been talk of mandating some vaccines, so what’s the scoop on that right now? Where do we stand on that?

Tom: Yeah. If you look at any of our communities – Brooks would probably nod along here – if you look at residents at CCRCs in the state, their vaccination rate is probably 98%, 99%. Almost all of our residents are vaccinated, but our staff, our team members (depending upon the community that you’re at), that vaccination rate is probably going to range somewhere between 55% and 85% (with 85% being pretty rare).

Our challenge is, how do we figure out a way, recognizing again the diversity of folks that we work with and that work at our communities? How do we make sure that we’ve got as many people vaccinated as we possibly can, particularly with the Delta variant now that’s on the upswing?

Here’s what we see. For that resident population that is almost 100% vaccinated, there are still people that will contract COVID who have got both their shots. But the severity of their symptoms is so much less and, for many of them, they didn’t even know that they’ve got it. They’re asymptomatic, right?

Brooks: Exactly.

Tom: One of the things that the field is looking at right now and, in fact, about 55 national organizations, including LeadingAge National, came out this morning with a statement encouraging long-term care settings, healthcare settings like continuing care retirement communities to mandate the vaccine for current and new employees. I think you’ll see a lot of discussion.

Here in North Carolina, last week, the North Carolina Healthcare Association, which used to by the hospital association, came out encouraging their hospitals to mandate the vaccine. There were a number of them last week that did that.

I guess the last thing on this is just to understand that one of the big challenges right now for communities is around workforce. There just are not a lot of people out there beating the door down (not just at CCRC, but anywhere) to work. The workforce market is just so tight right now. There are communities that are concerned, “Gosh, if I mandate the vaccine, it’s going to make that equation even harder.”

I think what we have found around the country in talking to folks who have mandated the vaccine is that they may have lost some folks because of that, but it’s not nearly the stampede that they thought that it was going to be. In fact – Brooks, you might share about Aldersgate – my sense is that for those communities that have high numbers in terms of vaccination rates for their staff and for their residents, a lot of them are using it in their marketing with prospective residents in terms of it being a safe and secure place to be because they’ve got high vaccination rates.

Brooks: It’s interesting to think about the amount of residents that we had that vaccinated. Of the 98%, 99% that we had on campus, the only ones that didn’t that I’m aware of had underlying health conditions that prevented them from getting vaccinated.

Tom: Right.

Brooks: We employ over 30 different nationalities here at Aldersgate. There are two sides to everything (at least). We just have to realize that a lot of cultures have a bad history with vaccinations.

Tom: Exactly.

Brooks: And have not been dealt a very nice hand in vaccinations before, so there is that component that falls into that. Again, the Delta variant is all over the news, it’s all over our brains, and it is going to be an interesting issue – to say the least.

Tom: Yeah. Brooks, that’s great in terms of that statement this morning that LeadingAge National and those other 55 organizations (American Medical Association, American Nurses Association) that came out with said that certainly there are going to be staff members that we have that don’t get vaccinated because of cultural issues, because of underlying health issues, because of religious issues. Those certainly are things that we need to honor and make sure that we follow through on that promise to staff that we have around those kinds of things.

Brooks: Exactly.

Tom: Yeah.

Brooks: It’s a tough call because we also have promises we’ve made to our residents and to their families and all their loved ones. Yeah, it is a weighty decision.

Tom: Yeah.

Mike: Yeah, I think that that’s probably the hardest decision facing a lot of places right now is how to toe that line and be respectful but still, at the end of the day, be able to do your best to guarantee a safer environment not just for your residents but for employees, for guests because nobody wants to go back to full-scale lockdowns and things like that.

Brooks, you and I were talking earlier that there is the possibility out there in the world. Places are talking about going back to modified openings and things like that. Hopefully, we don’t go down that road and, obviously, the best way to help the world keep that from happening is to up those vaccination rates, right?

Tom: Yes. Yes. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what the Governor does with his next executive order whether we see anything come back into play, particularly around masks. Early January of this year, we were rocking along at about 11,000 cases a day in North Carolina. In mid-June, that was down to about 260 but since that time has headed back up. Certainly, not anywhere to where we were at in January. As we’ve found when we got into this, we just have got to figure out what the best direction is going to be here.

Brooks: Well, and to your point, Tom, it’s hot as Hades right now, but it won’t be long before it’s colder, cooler weather, and people will be indoors.

Tom: Yep.

Brooks: And so, we run the risk of doing the exact same thing we did last year at that time of year when people are going back indoors, the air that’s overturned in the house, and the rates go up.

Tom: Yeah. Yeah.

Brooks: Yeah.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Brooks: It’s a weighty decision.

Mike: [Laughter] Well, moving away then from COVID, obviously we could probably spend hours and hours and hours and hours talking about all that, but that’s good also tying it in with the workforce challenges. We’ve all acknowledged that that’s definitely a challenge among many of the current issues out there in the industry. Tom, you wanted to mention something as well about some challenges with sales taxes, correct?

Tom: Yeah. One of the biggest roles that we play for our communities is just around tax policy and making sure that the General Assembly and other policymakers have good information so that when they make decisions, they’re relying on the best data that can be provided. Many CCRCs (like Aldersgate) have a monthly service fee that they charge to residents.

For the last 30 years, that monthly service fee has not been subject to sales tax. But about a year and a half ago, there was a random audit. Every year, the North Carolina Department of Revenue randomly audits about 5,000 taxpayers (some individuals, some businesses).

They randomly audited a CCRC. When the field auditor got out there, he said, “Oh, wow! There’s a lot of revenue we could be getting,” so he went back to the Department and they assessed that the community in question a couple of hundred thousand dollars in back taxes, penalties, and interest. Then about five months later, they assessed another community $4.3 million in back taxes, penalties, and interest for something that the state had never done before, and we just don’t think it’s good tax policy.

Basically, what they said was – they zeroed in on food, and they said that residents at communities, you needed to charge sales tax on the meals that they ate at that community. Again, not getting too far down here in the weeds, but communities like Aldersgate pay sales tax on that raw food that they bring into the community.

Brooks: Exactly.

Tom: So, it would be as if you were telling a resident at Aldersgate, “Hey, I know we’re taxing you on the food that’s being prepared. We’re going to tax you again when you eat it.” It would be as if you went to somebody who lived in the larger community and said, “We’re going to charge you sales tax at the grocery store, which currently happens. But when you prepare that meal at home, we’re going to come in and we’re going to tax you on it again.

Mike: [Laughter]

Tom: Anyway, we have been working over the last couple of years with the General Assembly to try and provide them with good information. We’ve had some legislation introduced this year that would basically exempt that monthly service fee from sales tax within the state.

We’ve seen some good progress during this session. The House is getting ready to introduce their budget here in the next couple of weeks, and we are hopeful that (between now and the middle of September) we’ll meet with some success in having those concepts that were in the bill. Mainly, you can’t charge sales tax on the monthly fee. That those would be put into statute because, at the end of the day—

Gosh, I say, “At the end of the day,” a lot. Don’t I?

Brooks: [Laughter]

Tom: Ah! I’ve got to come up with something new. Anyway, here’s the deal. Bottom line, if the Department is allowed to charge sales tax on the monthly fee, that state sales tax rate is about 4.75%. When you throw in local units of government, their ability to charge that sales tax, you’re talking about (for folks like Brooks and Aldersgate) close to 7.5% increase in their cost of doing business, which is just ridiculous when you realize that the state is flush with cash right now.

They have pulled a lot more in (in revenue) than they thought they were going to. They have gotten lots of money from the Feds as it relates to different things from COVID. They have been able to put more money into their rainy day fund.

This would be a completely different conversation if the State was way behind on tax collections and they were trying to figure out, how are we going to provide essential services? That’s not the way it is at all. We’ve got a policy that has never changed in 30 years that just doesn’t make sense to do right now, so we’re optimistic that this will work out well for our communities.

Brooks: Well, and to go back earlier to something that we discussed on this, if you look at what a CCRC brings in, we’ve got one source of income and that’s our residents. They will be the ones that have to end up paying for this. Add this regulation and this sudden viewpoint on charging it right on top of the pandemic on a virus that targets that demographic, is it any wonder that there’s depression and a feeling of isolation and irrelevance? It’s ridiculous, to begin with, and it’s really poor timing.

Tom: Yes.

Mike: Yeah. Absolutely.

Tom: Absolutely.

Brooks: Mike, one thing that Tom does extremely well with LeadingAge is, every year, we go for Advocacy Day. All the LeadingAge members come together at a conference in D.C., and they handle scheduling all of us with our legislators. We go, and we actually present – rely on us as the experts in the field because we are the frontline people.
• Let us tell you about the issues that our elders are facing.
• Let us tell you about the issues that are impacting them.
• Let us tell you how it is on this side that you may not be aware of that may actually change how you vote and what causes you’re championing.

It is a blast. There are some of us that are just like, “Advocacy Day! Yay!”

Tom: [Laughter]

Brooks: We have a blast going because it’s your chance. It’s your chance to be heard and to advocate on behalf of our elders. This demographic, once again, back in the ’60s, they would protest. If you want a population that votes, they vote, especially the ones that had to actually fight for the right to vote (females, minorities). They vote and they show up at the polls more than the younger generation does right now.

Legislators would do well to listen to what our elders say. We all would.

Mike: Yeah, for sure. I’m glad you brought that up, Brooks, because I was going to ask Tom a couple of things. In regard to now, what can be done to either help combat some of these challenges or how to address some of these challenges, how can us out there in the world help promote some of these changes and get some of these messages out there?

Tom: Yeah. That’s a great question, Mike. I will tell you that we try and tell (whether it’s residents, staff, or anybody) that there are three basic things I think that you can do. This all stems personally from being raised in a family that treated public service as a noble profession, a noble cause. I know that the current political environment can be so corrosive, but I think that no matter which side of the aisle, which side of the issues you’re on, there are three things you can do.

The first one is, you can stay educated on the issues. That’s a commitment that you have to make that you’re going to try and figure out how you can stay committed in terms of reading up on and aware of what those issues are that face, in particular, aging services.

I think it’s really important, number two, that you stay connected with policymakers and with elected officials. What that means is that policymakers need to hear from you. Your elected official needs to hear from you, not just when you’re mad. You need to be reaching out to them to say, “Hey, I saw that you did this, and I really liked that,” or “Thank you for doing this, or “Hey, I want to let you know what’s going on,” without just waiting for something to go wrong and so, whenever they hear from you, your hair is on fire.

Then I think the third thing is that you just need to stay active in terms of consistent outreach. There are two ways that that can take place. We all hear about grassroots, which is, you got a whole bunch of people together. Numbers do matter.

I can tell you, working for a congressional office, if you’ve got more than 15 or 20 calls or letters on an issue, it was a hot deal, so numbers matter. That grassroots efforts are so vital.

At the other end of this spectrum is this notion of grasstops advocacy. Grass tops advocacy is really about, who do I know (because they were a business partner, they were a next-door neighbor, they used to teach Sunday school, I was in synagogue with them, or whatever it might be) who now has an impact on the process (because they’re an elected official or they’re somebody that has some influence).

It’s really important, for example, if you are at Aldersgate and you were the next-door neighbor of the senate finance committee chair at some point, to let Brooks know that because you’re always looking for an opportunity. People listen to friends, right? They listen to people that they know and respect – while numbers are important.

Let me tell you just a very quick story. We were working on another issue and we were having trouble getting through to a particular legislator in terms of just getting a response back. They apologized profusely that they said (last Thursday on this particular issue) they got more than 10,000 emails.

Mike: Damn.

Tom: Ten thousand. Right? There’s no way you’re going to break through that crap and try and get to that one nugget of information that’s out there, but that’s where we’ve come, particularly in terms of let’s see how many numbers we can generate. They’re impressive, but sometimes they crowd out the other stuff. Your ability to be able to identify folks who know people within the system is just really important in terms of trying sometimes just to break through the noise.

Mike: Yeah. Those tips are great: stay educated, stay connected, stay active. Whether or not you’re a resident at a CCRC, you’re a citizen just out there in the community, or you’re an administer, an operator, or a member of the C-suite, or a president this or that, regardless of what role you play in society, keeping ahead of all of those issues, communicating those, and just keeping with that sense of community, everybody out there can play a part in making sure that we can advocate for the proper things to happen through the proper channels.

Tom: Right. Absolutely. I would tell you that we have a number of communities, residents, and staff members who do that really well, but there is nobody that does that better than Aldersgate, in part because Suzanne and her team have figured out that power that exists behind collaboration and behind providing good information to folks. As a result, there are so many things that you see on the campus at Aldersgate or efforts that they’re making in the larger community that is reflective of their understanding that, man, if you stay active, you stay educated, you collaborate, and work with others, good things are going to happen to you.

Mike: Absolutely. Tom, final thoughts? What do you want to leave the listeners with today?

Tom: I think probably what a fine-looking individual Brooks Shelley is.


Mike: That’s a given, right?

Tom: Right there. There you go. No, I think if I was going to leave you with something, it would be this. It can be very easy nowadays to get discouraged about the discourse going on in our country and it can be so coarse, so acerbic.

When I was in college, I had an Introduction to Logic class. The only thing that I remember from that was fallacy of bifurcation. It’s this notion that for any issue, there are only two possible solutions. It’s either here or it’s here. Right? In fact, we all know there’s a whole bunch of stuff in the middle.

I guess the thought I would leave you with is that while it’s easy to get discouraged, man, hang in there. Hang in there. Make your voice heard. Make sure that, what you believe, you are able to relate it in a kind way. I still think kindness counts for so much and people listen to it no matter what, sometimes, it looks like our leaders are doing.

It would be, just hang in there. Don’t go away. We need you and your voice.

Mike: Yeah. Brooks, how about you, man? What do you want to leave us with today?

Brooks: I would add (right on top of Tom’s comments) don’t just advocate for what currently affects you because if you’re fortunate, it will affect something else you want to affect in the future. So, don’t just react to what personally, directly impacts you. You can stay educated and advocate for those things that don’t personally and directly impact you because, at any point in time, you never know when it will.

Mike: Yeah. Awesome. Words of wisdom, folks, to live by – for sure. Tom, Brooks, I want to thank you all for hanging out today on Aldersgate OnAir. This has been an awesome, informative, educational, and fun conversation.

I assume I’m going to see both of you probably in Atlanta in October, right?

Tom: Absolutely.

Brooks: Absolutely. You can look on our website when the podcast airs for links for more information.

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Mike: Absolutely. Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Akins, Brook Shelley, thank you guys so much for hanging out today.

Brooks: Thanks, Mike.

Tom: Thank you.

Brooks: Thanks, Tom.

Tom: Take care, guys. See ya.

Mike: Thanks, as always, to all of you out there in radio and podcast land for hanging out with us on-air today and for being a part of the journey. If you’re at the LeadingAge North Carolina conference in Wilmington from August 17th through 20th, keep your eyes peeled for Tom. Let him know you heard him on this show, and I’m sure he’ll sign some autographs for you. There you go, Tom. I just added one more thing to your to-do list. You’re welcome.

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