Third career in fourth quarter

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Barbara Ruben

After serving for 20 years in the Mary land General Assembly, Gloria Lawlah thought it might be time to retire at 68.

“I was quite ready to come home and hit the golf balls,” she recalled of what ended up being a very short-lived hiatus from public service.

Just a month later, in February 2007, she was appointed Maryland’s Acting Secretary of Aging — a job made permanent the following month.

Lawlah thought, “I have landed a heck of a job, and just in the nick of time, since I’m in the midst of aging myself.”

As Secretary and head of Maryland’s Department of Aging, Lawlah is working to manage and expand healthcare, housing and other programs as the proportion of older adults in Maryland, as elsewhere across the country, continues to climb rapidly.

“We’re surrounded by our elders,” she said. “We’re surrounded by wisdom. That’s the way I look at it.”

The fourth quarter

With our steadily increasing longevity, many people’s lives can now be divided into quarters, Lawlah said, the fourth quarter being from 75 to 100 years old.

“The system has to be geared now to take care of the fourth quarter, which didn’t exist years ago. We [thought we] didn’t need to worry about that, because we were all going to be dead,” she said with her customary forthrightness. “Our [support] systems were not designed for us to live this long.”

Much of Lawlah’s work now focuses on how to provide the services this age group needs and how to prepare for the rapid growth we are facing in its numbers.

One of the most important pieces of the puzzle, she thinks, is figuring out how best to help people stay in their homes as they age. It’s often called “aging in place.”

The goal is to provide “wrap-around services in the home, where [people] feel comfortable and secure. If you can keep them healthier and keep them in their homes, you’re going to cut in half the amount of money” it costs.

“They’re [also] going to be much better off mentally,” she said, citing a program called Money Follows the Person. ThisMedicaid demonstration project helps bring people out of nursing institutions and puts them back into their homes and communities.[See “Program shows them the way to go home,” in the July Beacon.]

Putting theory into practice

One component to helping seniors age in place is strong family ties, Lawlah believes. That’s why she and her husband moved her mother-in-law (now 100 years old) to the home next door to theirs in Temple Hills, Md., back in 1997.

Lawlah praises her mother-in-law, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 1933, as a great role model.

“She always was so progressive in her thinking, always saying women should be equal to men in all ways. She always sup ported me in everything I wanted to do and supported me when I wanted to run for office.”

Lawlah, who has three children and six grandchildren, likes to gather her extended family at her house and in the large backyard that they share with her mother in- law. There the family can play games or hang out in the rose garden or large screened carriage house.

“It’s intergenerational fun. It certainlyhelps our young people appreciate their elders. They get a chance to see their great-grandmother.

“They have seen her in the best of health. They have seen her in the worst of health. They understand all those things we have to do for her and how we treat her,” she said.

In addition, Lawlah and her husband Jack, a retired civil engineer, remodeled and expanded their rambler three years ago, more than doubling its size to include five bedrooms and seven bathrooms.

While one of their goals was to make the house comfortable for Jack’s mother and their grandchildren to visit, Jack convinced her it was also important to make it accessible so they could grow older in the house themselves.

They added an elevator to connect all three levels. In addition, they added a kitchenette and extra washer and drier to the third floor, along with an extra bed room for a potential future caregiver. Lawlah reasoned that if they become in firm, they could live just on that floor.

“People said, ‘You won’t get your money back out of the house.’ We said, ‘We don’t care. It’s not an investment of that nature. It’s an investment in where we want to live,’” Lawlah recalled.

“We did the things we thought would make it enjoyable and comfortable, and it had nothing to do with building a McMansion in a neighborhood of suburban ranch houses, which some people have complainedabout.“My sons-in-laws are all contractors, so it was a family affair. Just like the song, we did it our way.”

Active in civil rights movement

Lawlah’s come a long way from the tiny South Carolina town of Newberry, where she grew up in the deeply segregatedSouth. But in some ways, she’s following a path her parents laid out.

Because African-Americans weren’t al lowed to use the recreation facilities in town, Lawlah’s father, a technical engineer, built Lawlah and her sister their own regulation- size basketball court on the corn field they owned. As a result, their home became a haven for the black children in the neighborhood.

Her mother was a teacher, and while Lawlah studied journalism at Hampton University in Virginia, she decided to be come a teacher as well. Lawlah met Jack, a native Washingtonian, at Hampton, and they moved to the District after graduation.

Lawlah taught at Terrell Junior High in D.C. for 30 years and earned her master’s degree in English and administration from Trinity College.

She also became swept up in the far reaching changes for women and African-Americans that began during the late 1960s and continued into the 1980s.

Lawlah met Marion Barry while both were active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the principal organizations involved with the civil rights movement.

“Those were the heady days of protest and opening doors and shattering glass ceilings and just making way for equality,” she recalled.

She attended the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco as an alternate for Walter Mondale. While there, she discovered that many male politicians, including Jesse Jackson, didn’t want to include women in their circle.

This led to her helping found the National Political Congress of Black Women to organize greater participation in the political process. Other members included Coretta Scott King, Eleanor Holmes Nor ton, Donna Brazille and Rosa Parks, “who was my heroine.”

Inspired by the experience, Lawlah decidedto run for office herself. She was elected to the Maryland House of Dele gates in 1986. Four years later, she became the first woman from Prince George’s County to be elected to the state Senate.

She said some of her biggest achievements included working on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Commission, helping get National Harbor project built, and getting sound-buffering barriers placed along the Beltway in Prince George’s County to re duce noise in neighboring communities.

“That’s what people remember, the capital improvements,” she said.

A career transition

While in the Senate, Lawlah served on the Budget and Taxation Committee, chairing its Health and Human Services Subcommittee. This proved to be the perfect segue to becoming Maryland’s Secretary of Aging.

Lawlah worked on Martin O’Malley’s 2006 campaign for governor, and he and her son went to high school together at Gonzaga College High School in the District. When he took office, O’Malley tapped her for the job.

“Gloria Lawlah is an invaluable asset to our administration, not only for her intel lect and knowledge on issues of aging, but for her experience in government and ability to bring together the necessary stake holders to get things done for Maryland seniors,” Gov. O’Malley told theBeacon.

“Of all cabinet members, Gloria was among the very first to develop a plan to utilize federal stimulus funds to benefit the senior population, and her continued advocacy on behalf of Maryland seniors ensures that all seniors in our state will have the necessary information on how the new healthcare reforms will affect them,” he added.

Deputy Secretary of Aging Ilene Rosenthal (no relation to the Beacon publisher) sees Lawlah as a consummate negotiator who is able to build consensus.

“Secretary Lawlah has the unique ability to extend her hand across the aisle. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans. She’s always saying, ‘There’s my friend so and so.’ She really has a skill to get people on board and also has the ability to see the big picture,” Rosenthal said.

As an example, Rosenthal points to a major initiative called Maryland Access Point that is offering older residents and all adults with disabilities convenient access to programs and services that can help them.

In addition to placing one-stop-shop offices in each county (a project well under way, but not yet complete), a new website will soon be launched that provides infor­mation about and links to long-term care services and other resources throughout the state.

“She very quickly embraced the difficulties people were having with the [more fragmented current] system,” Rosenthal said. “She saw this as an initiative that would be a centerpiece in helping not just seniors but their caregivers and younger people with disabilities.”

Lawlah said she treasures the intergenerational atmosphere in the Maryland Department of Aging, noting that she has hired some enthusiastic young employees. ”Isn’t that exciting? You’re wedding the latest technology and research and methodology and young people with older people who need these services. Now that, to me, is important.”

As she looks toward the future, Lawlah also reflects back over her long career and what she’s seen in the world of politics.

“I look at everything that happened. We opened the doors for the new women politicians…We helped bring in Barack Obama…We opened the doors wide, so everyone could walk through those doors, and I think it’s wonderful.

“I never dreamed I would see all of these things done,” she said. “It just wows me. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”