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11 Questions for Brad Berens, Executive Director of Santa Clarita Committee on Aging
November, 2007 - Issue #37
The Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center has been around for the past 30 years. Located in an oak-lined lot off of Market Street in Newhall, the Center is a meeting spot for many seniors who gather for exercise, a little bridge, some educational classes and a good meal, just to name a few of the more than 100 distinct services provided.

Brad Berens is the director of the SCV Committee on Aging (COA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of more than 36,000 seniors living in our community. They currently serve an approximate 8,500 elders living in their service area that covers the entire Santa Clarita Valley and beyond. To achieve this, the COA provides 80 staff members and 250 volunteers who assist with nutrition programs, social work, housing rehabilitation, transportation, adult day care, recreation and education, counseling programs, in-home care and telephone monitoring. It also manages three affordable housing complexes in the Santa Clarita Valley.

1. How long have you been associated with the SCV Committee on Aging?
Sixteen years and counting.

2. What are some of the greatest needs of seniors today?
Housing is certainly at the top. The more affordable housing we can provide, the more we can keep seniors here in the community they call home. Affordable housing coupled with in-home services gives us the ability to help seniors "age in place" especially for the advanced elderly.

3. Lots of Boomers are surprised by the cost of caring for their parents.
The vast majority of adult children of aging parents can't afford long-term care and the vast majority of seniors have a need for affordable, assisted-living facilities. We believe if we could procure the property, we can set up affordable, assisted-care facilities that would further address the continuum of need for our seniors.

4. How can that happen?
With the cost of construction and the price of land, we have to get much more community and civic involvement and support to make these long-range plans a reality. We're hoping for opportunities with the Newhall Ranch area that will ultimately become a reality and for more immediate opportunities as they arise or we can incubate.

5. Tell us a little about some of the more popular programs at the Senior Center.
Congregate meals are our biggest draw. The beauty about that program is that seniors are meeting other seniors and expanding their social network. They create new friendships and build an informal support network that has friends taking care of friends. From there they automatically get involved in a variety of recreation and educational classes we offer. It is a gateway to our vast spectrum of programs and services that eventually every senior will need.

6. You don't have to be a senior to take advantage of some of these services, right?
Some people have issues with the programs that allow for our intergenerational approach, but we believe we are building appreciation for seniors from the ground up, building on sensitivities that in other cultures come naturally. You often see three generations of the same family interacting and recreating together and truly developing the extended family dynamic that means so much to our elders. Seniors feel more at home at our facility that caters to seniors where they can invite their family to join them.

7. How do these programs get financed?
There is a federal funding mechanism called the Older Americans Act that provides most of our core funding. Second to that is the magnanimous support from the City of Santa Clarita that helps with most recreation programs, education and our transportation programs. A great number of our programs are self-supporting and others are federally funded through HUD Community Development Block Grants.

8. You recently created a Foundation. What is the role of that board?
We were serving about 2,000 seniors when I first arrived here. Now we're serving 8,500 but our funding has remained level and mostly stagnant. The foundation is critical to our ability to fund our programs now and in the future. We see an average increase of 10 percent each year in every thing we do.

9. Who receives Home-delivered meals?
A home-delivered meal recipient is typically now 80 years old, lives alone, is chronically ill or disabled and generally has no support network in place. When they reach that point in their lives and become homebound, the first thing they need to remain independent in their own home is the Home Delivered Meal program.

10. There's more demand than ever, right?
We don't turn anyone away or put them on a waiting list that is so often the case in other communities. It opens the gateway to a dozen other services we can provide that also further enhances independence and quality of life. They see our social workers who provide in-home assessments and look at the home environment - whether they need meals, or home repairs, personal care or housekeeping.

We do a variety of things to allow seniors to stay in their homes and avoid the need to be in a more restrictive institutional setting. Their most ardent desire is to stay in their own home and remain connected to their community.

11. Your background includes work with the Saudi Arabian government. Can you tell us about that?
Since my 20s I worked in the nonprofit world. I took a 10-year hiatus and worked in aerospace for awhile. I worked with the Saudi Arabian government and Litton International Development Corp. as basically a social worker helping them acclimate to the United States. Later I saw the advertisement for the executive director position here and liked the fact that I could work in my own community. I had already dealt with the end-of-life needs for both of my parents where I gained a great appreciation for the needs of seniors. Funny, looking back in junior high school I took an assessment test and was told I would be a good diplomat or social worker. My life has allowed me to do both in a sense.

12. Tell me a little about your family?
I'm re-married and between my wife and me we have five children. We have one-year-old twin boys, a six-year-old boy, a 15-year-old boy and thank goodness for our 13-year-old daughter who helps balance the equation. Fortunately my wife is younger and very energetic; theoretically I should be a grandfather now. I was definitely a child of the '60s. My father was a Navy pilot and we moved every two years from stints in the South Seas to Georgia, Maryland, and Texas. I couldn't be more pleased with they way my parents brought me up and my time in the Pacific regions molded me to who I am today.

13. You'll be receiving AARP membership soon. What do you hope is changed or accomplished by the time you need the services you help provide now?
Actually I already received an invitation to join AARP. I haven't mailed it off yet. I pay very close attention to AARP and their vision. The reality of the needs of our seniors will come up and literally smack us all in the face. Our seniors will be more active and healthy and live to a much longer age; however, the huge segment of our population of advanced elderly will present challenges not yet even conceived of in most circles. We will need much more affordable assisting living and in-home services probably stemming from community-based organizations such as ours. Beyond looking at the government for help, we are going to have to enlist support at the community level.

14. Tell us more about affordable housing for seniors.
We provide all the contracts from federal, state, county and local jurisdictions and we are the general managing partner in our affordable housing complexes. These housing complexes offer much of the same services we do at the Senior Center while providing additional accessibility. Our partner in these ventures, Jules Swimmer, had a shared vision with us and took substantial financial risk. He is someone I consider to be a hero in this valley.

15. I'm sure you are always looking for volunteers.
Sixteen years ago our volunteer force was much, much larger consisting of primarily seniors. Now days, those seniors who used to be our volunteers are at the age where we now provide services to. Many people are working later in life, and many are involved taking care of their spouse or watching grandchildren, so the volunteer force has dwindled rather dramatically.

16. What are your last words on the SCVCOA and the senior population?
As we age, we need to realize that there but for the grace of God go us all. Even well-to-do seniors have needs that can only be addressed by an agency like ours. In our youth-oriented society, our seniors are the last to be thought of when it comes to charitable support. We find ourselves the underdog in attempting to keep pace with the evident needs in our senior communities. Someday it will change, but not fast enough for our current challenges. I have great faith in our foundation and the community. I look forward to the next generation of foundation members, board members and volunteers. I know that our current supporters, board members and foundation members have the altruism that motivates them from the heart. Their giving will transcend to others in our community with each passing year.
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