Excited about aging in D.C.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Barbara Ruben
Hayes Senior Wellness Center participant Doris Droughn poses with District of Columbia Office on Aging director John M. Thompson. Thompson is working, together with counterparts in other city agencies, to reshape Washington as an “age-friendly” city that residents can remain in and navigate better as they grow older.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

“What changes would you like to see at the center?” D.C. Office on Aging Executive Director John M. Thompson asked several women visiting the Hayes Senior Wellness Center in Northeast Washington.

One asked that it serve lunch. Another wanted the music therapist to make a return visit. A third visitor requested crocheting classes, which Thompson said he’d like to pick up as a hobby himself because he thought it would be relaxing.

“My job is to make sure you’re served. We want to be a country club for you,” Thompson said to the ladies with a smile before walking back upstairs to his office.

The D.C. Office on Aging (DCOA) moved into the renovated 115-year-old former Hayes School last fall, joining the senior wellness center there as well as the District’s Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC).

Thompson, who was appointed the DCOA’s executive director last year, saw the move as an opportunity to interact more directly with some of the 106,000 District of Columbia seniors his office serves.

“When we were located downtown at One Judiciary Square, we were just in a giant government office building. But now we’re integrated into the community,” he said of his new digs, located on a street of brick row houses near the up-and-coming H Street corridor. “It makes such a difference,” he added.

A primary goal for Thompson is to integrate programs and services for older adults, and for adults of any age with disabilities, into the fabric of Washington’s communities. He sees his office’s location as a symbol for making that happen.

Creating an age-friendly city

The DCOA recently completed its first senior needs assessment since 1978, and from that developed a three-year strategic plan encompassing a number of departments throughout DC government. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the initiative at a recent press conference.

The first of its four major goals is to make the District of Columbia into an “age-friendly city.” It’s part of an international effort begun by the World Health Organization and supported in the U.S. by AARP.

This means pulling together government offices from across the city to anticipate and alleviate problems — from the Transportation Department tweaking traffic lights to allow older pedestrians more time to cross Washington’s wide streets, to the Department of Parks and Recreation adding accessibility features when doing renovations.

“One senior said to me, ‘If the person who empties my trash can would just leave it where it is rather than dropping it down the street’ it would make a big difference,” Thompson said.

“We’re not talking about a huge investment to make this an age-friendly city, just changing the way we think. [Still,] it’s going to be a huge culture change, an organizational change for the city,” he said. “The mayor is very supportive.”

Other parts of the plan bolster linking seniors to available services. Only about 40 percent of the District’s seniors currently utilize one or more of DCOA’s services and Thompson would like to see that grow. “We need to focus on more than just getting a person a meal. We need to focus on the entire person,” he said.

Another goal is forming strategic partnerships, especially intergenerational ones. For example, while DCOA has a staff member devoted to helping residents find new housing when needed, it doesn’t have a large program that helps seniors continue to live independently in their own homes, which is what most of them want to do.

Hence, the strategic plan promotes the concept of “aging-in-place” by aiming to provide more support services to older homeowners.

One way to do that is through “villages” that bring whole neighborhoods together to keep an eye out for older residents and those with disabilities. DCOA is designating funds as seed money to help such villages get started in every ward of the city.

So far, there are about 12 of them, but more are needed. “Being able to create that synergy and involve the whole community is what the villages are all about,” Thompson said.

The strategic plan also aims to increase intergenerational programs and partnerships to accomplish the age-friendly city goal.

For example, DCOA plans to partner with a D.C. vocational charter school that teaches students how to renovate homes. The students will get on-the-job training by helping seniors with tasks such as drywall repair and painting.

“Those are the types of services that can really help modify a senior’s home and give the youth the experience. So that’s a win-win situation,” Thompson said.

On the flip side, another DCOA program will be pairing experienced retired teachers as mentors for educators who are just starting out in their careers.

An affinity for seniors

At age 36, Thompson is young enough to be his constituents’ son or grandson. But he calls his career “a natural progression toward working with seniors.”

Thompson grew up in Columbia, S.C., earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and master’s degrees in health services management and business administration at universities in his home town.

He also holds a Ph.D. in health services administration from Walden University in Minneapolis and is a fellow of the American Academy of Medical Administrators.

Thompson worked in the nursing home division of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid as a health insurance specialist. He also served as director of the National Aging Information & Referral Support Center and as Senior Policy Advisor of the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities.

Before becoming DCOA’s executive director, he was the District’s ADRC supervisory public health analyst from 2008 to 2010. ADRCs have been partly funded by the federal government throughout the country to encourage state and local governments to combine services for older adults with those for adults of any age with disabilities.

But even as a child, Thompson was introduced to aging issues. He accompanied his father as he did field work to earn a degree in healthcare administration.

“He would go to group homes. At Christmas time, we’d go to the VA hospital and sing Christmas carols. Somehow we always had something in our world that dealt with seniors,” including visiting his grandfather, he said.

“My road growing up was around seniors, and the pieces of the puzzle just fit together,” Thompson said.

Today, Thompson, who has a 4-year-old daughter and 14-year-old stepson, is seeing aging from the perspective of his parents, who still live in South Carolina.

While his father is active in the community, his mother spends much more time at home. A native of Thailand (with parents who were Thai and Chinese), she feels isolated by a lack of connection with culture, he said.

Reaching out to the underserved

Thompson said he thinks of his mother when he looks at making the District’s services more inclusive.

“Our job is to interest folks who have a barrier — whether it’s a social barrier, a cultural barrier, or if they decide not to participate in activities because of illness. Our job is to offer something that will entice them to participate in the different types of activities the city offers,” he said.

And once residents visit a wellness center, congregate meal site, or other location with senior services, Thompson wants to make sure they get more than they came in for. “We need to do a better job of integrating the social and the health component,” he said.

That means offering more social activities at wellness centers, which primarily have exercise equipment and fitness classes, as well as bringing healthcare practitioners to events and activities so that seniors can get their blood pressure checked or even chat with a doctor when they come to hear a speaker or have lunch.

Howard University’s Geriatrics Division operates the Hayes Senior Wellness Center in the building where Thompson works. The center is run by the university’s chief of geriatrics, who has brought 10 to 15 medical residents in to help do screenings.

Also, a surgeon has provided vascular screenings, saving several seniors from requiring the amputation of a limb, Thompson said.

“Not every senior has a primary care physician. So when we have our holiday party on Dec. 5, we’re bringing practitioners to do in-depth screenings….Our job is to offer the resources to help them get some type of annual checkup, to make [care] easy for them to access,” he said.

Another new tool to help introduce seniors to the city’s services is the DCOA Ambassador program, which educates community volunteers about available resources and trains them to advocate for seniors, persons with disabilities and family caregivers, helping connect them to services.

More than 200 volunteers have taken the four-hour training course. “The more people we can train, the more we can extend our reach to those individuals we normally do not touch,” Thompson said.

Back in his office on K Street NE, Thompson is working to offer more programming at the Hayes Senior Wellness Center, such as hand dancing and walking clubs, ideas suggested by visitors.

While Thompson hears complaints and suggestions every day from seniors, for the most part, “they’re very appreciative of the work that we do, and that makes my job very worthwhile,” he said.

[For more information on the programs of the DCOA, see this month’s edition of “Spotlight on Aging,” the department’s monthly newsletter, on page 27 of this issue.]


Hayes Senior Wellness Center participant Doris Droughn poses with District of Columbia Office on Aging director John M. Thompson. Thompson is working, together with counterparts in other city agencies, to reshape Washington as an “age-friendly” city that residents can remain in and navigate better as they grow older. Photo by Barbara Ruben.