Local nonprofit agency provides free support for seniors and their caregivers
A chat with Joe Cobery can make one think differently about getting older.
“What a privilege it is to get old,” said the middle-aged Cobery recently from his downtown Chico office. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Cobery is the director of Passages Adult Resource Center, a local nonprofit agency offering a tremendous array of senior-citizen-related services—all free of charge.
“We provide services to older adults, families and caregivers throughout Northern California,” Cobery said. “We offer significant services for family caregivers, some as direct services in their homes, and services in our offices. Others we contract out for.”
He said people regularly call for assistance with such matters as locating their local senior-nutrition site, or with questions about their estate plans. Passages’ Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program helps steer people through the Medicare system. Counselors help those eligible to enroll and maintain yearly updates. As people age, Medicare can be harder for them as well as their families to understand, said Cobery. “We’ve had Ph.D.s from the [Chico State] campus say it’s complicated and confusing, so we have a well-trained staff that’s able to help,” he said.
Under the umbrella of the Mountain Caregiver Resource Center, part of a statewide network of California Caregiver Resource Centers, Passages offers abundant programs for and about caregivers. Cobery says people don’t realize the stress involved in taking care of an aging relative. “It’s a 24-hour job, and it is very challenging,” he offered. It’s also hard, he said, for a caregiver to recognize that he or she needs help.
“The caregiver is the client,” in the case of the MCRC-sponsored caregiver programs, Cobery said. “We provide education and training—and respite.” Costs can be covered for a respite caregiver to step in if the primary caregiver needs to go shopping or take care of other activities. Usually, Cobery said, respite services are sought by someone looking after a person with Alzheimer’s disease or a similarly disabled patient.
“People can feel guilty, or like they have an obligation, and don’t identify themselves as someone who has needs,” Cobery said of the need for caregivers to have support, too. For people who give prolonged care to loved ones, Passages also offers support groups.
In another Passages program, long-term-care ombudsmen work for the support of residents of skilled-nursing facilities. “They provide preventative presence, weekly,” Cobery said. “If it’s a complaint like the [resident’s] food or their coffee is cold, to serious abuse … ombudsmen are advocates for the resident—not the family, or the facility.”
Fifty percent of residents in skilled-nursing facilities have no one who visits them on a regular basis, said Cobery. “They have no family or friends there. They have no voice. Ombudsmen work as a sounding board. They investigate and advocate so that resident can have the highest quality of life.”
Cobery discussed the importance of mental health, and overall happiness, for older adults. Men aged 75 and older have the highest suicide rate in in the country, Cobery said. “If it were young people, we’d go through the roof. We as a society would say that’s unacceptable. We tend to think, ‘Well, he lived a long life, it’s OK.’ But we can help older people through those issues.”
On a lighter note, Passages offers programs connecting seniors seeking volunteer opportunities in the community.
In the Senior Companions program, volunteers 55 years old or older are matched in one-on-one relationships with fellow seniors who may not get out much. Cobery said the benefit goes to the senior volunteer as well as the senior in need.
Foster Grandparents is a school-based program. Senior volunteers are assigned to local school classrooms for literacy support, and to act as teacher’s aides.
CJ Meyer, a lifelong Butte County resident, has been volunteering at Passages as a foster grandparent and a senior companion for the past several years.
“For me, it’s been life-changing,” Meyer said of her experiences. “When I retired, I didn’t know what to do. I was bored, and this gives me something constructive to do. I also love working in the office, because the people are so wonderful. They help a lot of older people in this area.”
Passages has 35 employees and 100 volunteers. It helps an estimated 5,000 people each year in 10 Northern California counties. As the agency is funded by federal, state, and some local contracts, Cobery looked ahead to Passages’ possible financial future in an uncertain economy.
“The last five years, we’ve been in decline,” he said. “This was a $5 million [per year] program six years ago, and [now] we’re around $4 million. Those are significant cuts. In the environment that lies ahead, all of us are worried.”
Cobery passionately defended the work that organizations like Passages do to help society. “The investment we make in our older communities now prevents institutionalization, which is much more expensive to government. We are confident and adamant that our services save the government money, and allow people to live with dignity and quality of life.
“My job here with the staff is to make aging sexy—our culture is so focused on youth,” Cobery said. “Aging is OK; it’s a good place to be. Elder adults deserve as high a quality of life as possible.
“We should treat older adults as any population. They should enjoy full, complete lives with full acceptance of who they are at this time. We all have so much to offer, and we need to embrace aging as a part of life. People are so scared of it.”