Brad Berens
Brad Berens
Executive Director,
SCV Committee on Aging
and SCV Senior Center

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, August 13, 2006
(Television interview conducted August 2, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m. This week's newsmaker is Brad Berens, executive director of the Santa Clarita Valley Committee on Aging, which operates the SCV Senior Center. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Folks are complaining that the Senior Center is overcrowded, there's not enough room, there aren't enough activities — and now you're cutting programs.

Berens: Not enough money, problems with the government, problems everywhere. Let's talk about the expansion because that's the most important thing—

Signal: You're cutting programs, but you're expanding the facility.

Berens: Sounds odd, doesn't it? Basically it's two different pots of money. We have our operational costs that come from a budget from a variety of sources, and then we were able to secure dollars — after a five-year effort, I might add — to do a small expansion of the Senior Center that would allow for more programming. It won't impact the operational budget at all.

Signal: Who's paying for the expansion?

Berens: Well, thank goodness for the city of Santa Clarita, primarily. They offered up roughly $240,000 of Community Development Block Grant dollars. And actually, that is the perfect application for those moneys. (CDBG) dollars are used for what they call bricks-and-mortar projects, which could be streets in rundown areas, or it could be used to enhance or build facilities for people, facilities like ours, that serve low-income people.
    So that's the distinction. Those moneys are set aside exactly for those sorts of projects, as opposed to our other budget.

Signal: Why is the city funding the expansion of a county-owned building?

Berens: Interesting about that, too. Frankly, I probably have much to apologize to the city for because in a way, that was my own doing. At the time, when we were devising this some years ago, it occurred to me that the best way to approach this was by how many seniors were coming to us from the unincorporated county versus how many came to us from the city. About 90 percent of our more than 8,000 seniors are coming to us from within the city, and then the other 10 percent from the (unincorporated) county.
    I had offered that as a solution, and of course the county jumped on that. But in the long run, now — and it's been so long since this project has gone through the bureaucratic process that the cost of labor and materials and what have you has gone up an additional 20 percent. So I will be going back to the county — because we can't afford it — to complete this project. We'll need more money and more funding from the county itself.

Signal: OK, but it's still confusing about the city's role in expanding a county facility, because regardless of whether someone lives in the city or county, it's the county's responsibility to provide health and welfare services, isn't it?

Berens: Well, yes. Yet thankfully, there are some incorporated cities such as Santa Clarita that step up to the plate and take some responsibility, as well. If we left it strictly to the county and the state or the federal government where funds flow through, we wouldn't have been serving nearly the amount of people we do. It's the city of Santa Clarita's additional funding that really makes us what has been called the most elder-friendly community in the nation.
    So, typically, unincorporated cities do put additional funds in. It was a unique situation, a three-way partnership between the county, the city and ourselves. The Committee on Aging is also putting up thousands of dollars to make this expansion a reality.

Signal: Who is the Committee on Aging?

Berens: The Committee on Aging is the nonprofit agency that runs the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center. The SCV Senior Center is just a DBA for one of the things that we do, and that happens to be our operations that emanate over on Market Street. We have so many other things. We do affordable housing. We have been able to build three different facilities here in the Santa Clarita Valley. Those are direct partnerships with the parent nonprofit, being the Committee on Aging.

Signal: Since the county of Los Angeles is responsible for providing certain services for seniors, isn't it the case that the county grants funds to the Committee on Aging, and you essentially act on behalf of the county to perform those mandated county services?

Berens: That's exactly right. The Older Americans Act — federal dollars that go to the state, then flow through the county, and then are subcontracted out to nonprofits such as ourselves, in some cases — those funding streams can come directly to cities that are running the senior programs. So in our case, yes, it comes directly to us through that roundabout method. And then, depending upon what sorts of funding are available, it allows us to put those services out for the seniors.
    Often, those funding streams are not really relevant to the unique character of any given city. (The) funding streams from the federal government to the state to the city used to include transportation. They stopped that some time ago, although it was vital funding and a service that was getting out to the seniors. So we developed our own transportation system, as an example. But not being able to run it to the scope that we would like and truly serve the community, the city of Santa Clarita again — rather magnanimously and altruistically and responsibly — is giving us money to expand those efforts that augment the citywide programs.

Signal: So those little Senior Center buses that we see driving around town are primarily funded by the city?

Berens: Primarily, yes. We do have some independent contracts that add to it, and then the Committee on Aging — our partnership with these three affordable housing complexes provides another funding stream for us that we devote almost entirely to transportation. The city of Santa Clarita (puts) in $150,000 toward that transportation, and we're adding to it an additional $150,000 from a variety of different sources, including independent contracts with the county of Los Angeles and other apartment buildings here in town.

Signal: About those senior housing complexes that you have — where are they?

Berens: In Saugus, 264 units. In Canyon Country, 200 units and 150 units in Castaic. Over the years, we were able to strategically locate those to better serve our transportation system with the limited resources we have. They're strategically placed throughout the valley for us to be able to accommodate the seniors from all of the environs of the valley the best we can.

Signal: Do you provide services at the housing complexes or do you bus their residents to the Senior Center for services?

Berens: We take them everywhere, actually. For them to access all of the other services we have at the center, we would bus them in there. But we also bus them out for the daily needs: shopping, doctor's appointments, recreational activities.
    As an example, in Castaic, Los Angeles County has a senior-run program up there. But primarily, it's us going up there and taking them where they want to go on our buses. So as you can see, we're in a collaborative relationship with virtually anybody in this valley who has anything to do with seniors.

Signal: Does the county has a separate contractor who provides services to seniors in Castaic?

The band plays to a full house in the Senior Center cafeteria at lunchtime. (Photo: Reneh Agha / The Signal)
Berens: They're allowing some funding (from the) county-run (Department of) Parks and Recreation for them to run some senior programs. ... The gentleman who is doing that is doing a very good job for those people up there.
    We also had envisioned Castaic, and to some degree it's true, being a magnet for programs that we offer out of there for people to come from the community and take part in. We've been mostly successful in that sort of vision over on Bouquet, where we have adequate space and it really becomes like an adjunct Senior Center over there.

Signal: How does it work at your senior housing complexes? Does part of their rent pay for the services?

Berens: No. Through our partnership with the for-profit owners, we are paid a fee every month — a social service fee, if you will. We use that just to augment the services that we provide that we're seriously short-funded on. In this case, we use that money primarily just for transportation services.

Signal: OK, let's get back where we started — what's the deal with cutting services at the Senior Center?

Berens: Well, we have known for about five years that with stagnated funding from the county, vis-ư-vis from the federal government, that the participation with our agency was going to outpace that funding this last year. It actually would have happened a number of years ago if it were not for a lot of the entrepreneurial things that we had accomplished.
    So last year, the last fiscal year that ended June 30, we are $100,000 in the hole. First time it has happened in my 16 years there at the Senior Center.
    When I first arrived, we were running about $50,000 or $60,000 in the hole. What's happened is sheer numbers of people who are coming in. We grow double-digits each and every year in the 16 years I've been there.
    Last year, we grew more than 14 percent in participation to more than — our actual number on our count last year was 8,143 seniors are coming to us for one or more services. Generally, as the population in our community ages, they're coming for us for multiple services. So it could be, if they're homebound, it could be home-delivered meals; it could be transportation to get them to the doctor; it could be escort services where our staff goes out and picks them up in a car and takes them to the doctor and acts as a case manager right there with the doctor. So, a variety of services are becoming inundated as the people age in place.
    And the dynamic is (that) the younger, more active seniors are actually working longer than they were when I first arrived on the scene. Where back then, we had maybe a couple of thousand people participating at the Senior Center and a lot of active volunteerism, those folks have aged and now have other needs. And then the younger seniors who we're seeing today don't come to us in the same droves as they did before, because they have to work longer or have other responsibilities, perhaps raising grandchildren and what have you. A variety of different reasons.

Signal: In terms of the services where the funding isn't keeping up — is the money supposed to be coming from the county or the state or the feds, or are you supposed to be out there raising it from the community?

Berens: In actuality, both. Certainly I take some responsibility for any of the additional services we need that are not funded, and that, I believe, is the Committee on Aging's responsibility in conjunction with perhaps the city of Santa Clarita. But certainly we've been underfunded for a great many years, and part of the problem is a gross inefficiency at the Area Agency on Aging in Los Angeles County. Much like United Way, they're taking 15 or 20 percent of the funds that come from ... Washington (and) using it for (administration); then what trickles down to us is even less and less.

Signal: Do you receive funding from United Way?

Berens: No, we do not receive funding from United Way. We have been asking for a great number of years...

Signal: So what you were saying is, the federal money comes to the county, the county takes some out and then gives the rest to you?

Berens: And then passes it around L.A. County. But it's grossly inadequate for what's going on in the county and the needs of the elderly.

Signal: The programs that you have cut — they're the ones that were not funded and not mandated? They were sort of luxury programs?

Berens: You might say that.

Signal: Such as?

Berens: It was our evening programming, which we were allowing (for) a variety of things: dance programs, arts and crafts, a variety of things that were going on during the night. Bridge. Hundreds and hundreds of people would come through. It was a great mechanism for an intergenerational approach to things — just like we do during the day, but it was much more successful at night. But we're talking several hundred people there, as opposed to thousands of people during the day.
    There were also groups that were using the facilities for free for years, when we had the ability to (let them), such as the Santa Clarita Concert Band practiced there for years and years free, that felt they weren't capable of offering some donation to the center toward the cost of utilities, staff time, cleanup time. So we decided, oh, well. And the utilities — recently the county has mandated that we start paying all of the utilities at the Senior Center, to the tune of about $45,000 a year.
    So a lot of things culminated and some (were) unexpected, such as paying the utilities, and that put a great burden on us — in addition to not being funded enough for all the core services.

Signal: Were there still some nonprofit organizations that were using the Senior Center at night and are out of luck now?

Berens: Most are. But again, we were able to give it to them free for a long period of time, and many felt that they were not able to make small donations. Some do. The bridge group (which is) probably 150 people strong every Tuesday night. They were able to collect among themselves and pay for the staff time, pay for the utilities, that portion that night, and they're still there.

Signal: But now they're locked out?

Berens: No, they're there. Those who can (pay) are still there, as we revamp the evening programming and bring in things that could become self-supporting.
    We certainly intend to bring it back, but not as a freebie to the community. We can no longer afford to do that, especially when our discretionary dollars, every bit of that is needed for core programming that is literally welfare and health and wellness for the seniors themselves.

Signal: So the money that you raise at your annual Wine Auction goes to the Meals on Wheels program—

Berens: Absolutely.

Signal: But some of the money that you raise from the community went into the programs you were doing at night?

Berens: No, that would come, sometimes, from donations.
    Let me just kind of set the record straight — because people are getting confused between the Wine Festival, sponsored by All Corked Up, and our traditional Wine Auction at Le Chêne, originated by Juan Alonso and Jo Anne Darcy.
    The Wine Festival was borne out of the Schutz family — Jay Schutz, primarily — who saw the needs of the seniors and had some personal interest in it, either by a family member or what have you. He had the idea of putting on this tremendous wine festival, the International Food and Wine Festival. (All Corked Up is) a wine purveyor, so it was a natural for them. And he has built on this event; he has dedicated any profits that may come from it to the Senior Center and its operations.
    So it is not one of our fundraisers, per se. I think the potential for that this year, and years to come, is tremendous, and we're extraordinarily thankful.
    As opposed to the Wine Auction, which is one of our bona fide fundraisers. All of the money that comes from that does go to home-delivered meals. That fulfills our promise that not one senior who needs a home-delivered meal will go without. They'll be started literally the next day — which is not like it is in other communities, where literally one senior passes away or is institutionalized before the next senior gets to the head of line and then receives his meal. We're entirely different from that.
    The other fundraiser, of course, is our Celebrity Waiter (Dinner), which is dedicated toward the needs of caregiving, adult daycare and those sorts of things.
    So you can see, those two fundraisers are dedicated toward the very frail elderly; services that are provided in the home, or supervision of people who have memory impairments or chronic illnesses where they need constant supervision.
    Typically the caregiver for people in our adult daycare are elderly spouses themselves. Were it not for them getting some of this respite time — this stress, as it usually (affects) caregivers, causes them to pass away before the care recipient does.

Signal: So today, the discretionary funds that you had been using for your nighttime programs is going into your core programs — why? Because the money from the county and state and feds isn't sufficient to keep up with the population growth?

Berens: Absolutely. And needs. And as the seniors' needs (increase), our services become more time-intensive; multiple services are applied, and therefore are far more costly.

Signal: What is on the horizon for getting more money out of the county to provide the core services?

Berens: Let me say, too, that I think success has been a two-edged sword for us for the last decade. People read we're the most elder-friendly community in the nation, that the Senior Center has all of these innovative programs, that they're taking care of tens of thousands of seniors.
    Corporate donations and donations from the community have reduced over the last five years by about 60 percent. That means that all of our major corporations in this community are giving to us with that reduction of what they used to.

Signal: It seems like anything related to children gets a lot of money.

Berens: Well, that seems to grow and grow and grow. I think the sheer social pressure of the needs of our seniors will change that, in the years to come. In the meantime, we're in this crux where we simply do not have enough funding to take care of all the needs in this community at this time.

Signal: Why do you think people aren't giving as much for senior-related things as they used to?

Berens: I think probably the absence of advocates such as Stan Sierad from years ago. Again I think it must be the belief in the community that we're just doing so well, they're not opening up their pocketbooks and sending anything in. Certainly if every single adult child in this community or elderly spouse or others who have ever used our services for one of their family members or somebody they know — if they were to send in $5 a year, we would be flush.

Signal: You wouldn't be $100,000 in the hole.

Berens: No. Certainly if anybody who has ever used our services or anybody who's even known somebody who has used them or a dear friend or family, sent in $5, we'd be flush, because we're talking over the years of tens of thousands of people that we assist.

Signal: Why would someone who has just become a senior want to go to the Senior Center and get involved with a bunch of old people? Don't you stay young by hanging around younger people?

Berens: Interesting you should say that, because it keeps a lot of younger seniors away. Yet once they come in, they're hooked. Because the stereotypical view of the seniors themselves who think, "I'm not going down to the Senior Center, it's a bunch of old folks sitting around, nothing to do" — but when you come in there, the Senior Center is one of the most dynamic places you can go in this valley.
    I assure you, anybody who walks through that door — I would bet $100 right here, right now that the average person from 40 to 55 to 60 could not come in there and keep up with our aerobics classes, as an example. So those stereotypes could only be dashed by them coming down and visiting, or visiting the programs that we put on, whether it be computers, Internet training, employment we do, employment development — more than 100 services in total.

Signal: What are some of those core services that you provide during the daytime that the county is ultimately responsible for providing?

Berens: Well, just in terms of what the county provides for — again, what I would call the core services: Home-delivered meals, where we're putting a hot meal in front of the home-bound senior.

Signal: Isn't that funded by the Wine Auction?

Berens: It's not enough money from what the county gives us.

Signal: So it's a combination of county and Wine Auction money.

Berens: Absolutely. But take home-delivered meals, as an example. We have the second-largest territory in the state of California, the Santa Clarita Committee on Aging Senior Center. In a 450-square mile area, we get the same funding as somebody in other areas of Los Angeles for 40 square blocks. So can you imagine the cost for us to deliver those foods, compared to some of those agencies.
    But nevertheless — and this is where (U.S. Rep.) Buck McKeon must rise to the occasion some day, because he's in charge of this committee, the re-authorization of the Older Americans Act — it's simply underfunded, and not enough money to get out there and do the job correctly.

Signal: We're talking about county services, but there are also federal pass-throughs?

Berens: Federal responsibility. Buck McKeon will be dealing with the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, and let's hope that he provides the leadership to fund that, commensurate with the needs in this country. Certainly he knows enough of our operations at the Senior Center to get a glimpse of what those needs are around this country.

Signal: One "older Americans" issue in the news lately is the Transitional Care Unit at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. People from the Senior Center have been picketing in front of the hospital, trying to convince the board not to shut the TCU.

Berens: Very proud of those folks.

Signal: There's a possibility that it could close—

Berens: A probability ... unless their board of directors is visionary enough and they also rise to the occasion.

Signal: Is there some sort of federal responsibility to provide that kind of service for seniors?

Berens: That's kind of complex, but quickly, the hospital would say that they are closing the transitional care unit because they have a need for more acute beds—

Signal: They would. They haven't formally made that decision.

Berens: No, but this is typically what's happening all over this country in communities — they're closing their transitional care units and earmarking those beds when they have a constrained amount of space or facilities to account for acute beds. So they do away with transitional care. The reason for that is, transitional care beds are funded at probably about 30 percent of what acute beds are funded for.
    So it's part of the federal government's responsibility, if they were to look wisely — and again, another area where Buck should look is to fund transitional care beds, commensurate with what it costs to run those. Because it is a part of "continuum of care." Particularly for our seniors and others, that is absolutely necessary.
    Now, in other communities, there are skilled nursing facilities where the seniors could go into convalescent care, if you will, and get the same services to a degree. Families are right there in the community, they can come and visit. Out here, we have no skilled nursing facilities aside from the Santa Clarita Convalescent Hospital, and we could easily use five more convalescent hospitals out (here).
    So, probably the hospital will close it. We don't think they should. To me, as the population ages more, the need for transitional care becomes more acute. Sure, you're going to have a need for more acute beds, but it automatically follows that you have a need for more transitional care unit beds.
    It's a given, too, that people who bypass transitional care and are discharged home from an acute setting will probably relapse and then go back in and take up that acute bed — where that problem would have been alleviated or mitigated or the need not at all, had they gone through the transitional care and that step in the continuum of medical care.

Signal: Why is it important for the community to help the Senior Center?

Berens: It has long been said by a lot of different philosophers — and I don't know if this pulls at anybody's heartstrings, but you can gauge the quality of life or the level of care by how they take care of the elderly. I see it slipping, in our case, in our community. And I want to believe, because I believe so much in Santa Clarita, that the perception on the part of our community is that the Santa Clarita Senior Center and our seniors are doing so well that they don't need our help, or we don't need their help.
    We certainly deserve their help, and I thank you for this opportunity to put them on notice. They need to rise to the occasion now, or these thousands and thousands of seniors that we're helping each and every year — and they grow by more than 1,000 each year — will be having to make some tough decisions.

Signal: Do you have any hope or plan in place to force the county or feds to fully fund what they should be fully funding?

Berens: I think, if anything, that's part of my forte at the Committee on Aging — I am not embarrassed to go pound on government doors and express the need. So that, along with trying to work the community to give more, I am optimistic.
    I think the county of Los Angeles needs to wake up. I think Buck McKeon and Congress need to wake up. And they need to wake up now.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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