This past year was quite challenging for many of us, with the economic crisis affecting budgets, senior centers and programs, and most importantly our individual pocketbooks with the high costs of goods and services, less income, high unemployment and less assistance from the government especially for seniors. The last few months have been particularly challenging at the Office for the Aging due many different personnel, program and budget challenges. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say I was glad to see the last of 2011.
I made a resolution to myself on New Year's Day that I would put away 2011 and look forward to 2012 with optimism. I have heard about techniques where you put all your problems in a box and throw them away but have never really tried to implement this kind of mental exercise. Surprisingly, I am finding that this ''self talk'' is helping me get past my feelings of disappointment and to look forward to 2012 with renewed optimism. I am hopeful that we will see a resolution to the biggest problems and challenges facing us this year. If you are facing similar feelings, I hope that you can reach inside yourself or reach out to someone to help you resolve your feelings of stress or depression and learn to move forward to a place that you can find happiness, satisfaction and balance in your life.
While I do not want to dwell on 2011, I do want to spend some time reflecting on one change at our office that many of you may not be aware of - the retirement of Ron Veklotz. If Ron is reading this article, he is probably cringing at this point wondering what I will say and not wanting to be the focus of attention. Sorry Ron, you will just have to endure.
Ron is an unassuming kind of gentleman and I say that with the utmost admiration and respect. He has always been a hard worker but goes about doing what needs to be done without fanfare or an expectation of praise or accolades. He has been the backbone of the Office for the Aging since its inception in the 1970s and he has personally served as a mentor, sounding board, adviser and keeper of institutional knowledge for me and many others within our OFA family. Many times when the department was without a director he took on the role of acting director. Whether there was a director or not, Ron's responsibilities were to oversee all programs that touched seniors from legal services and employment to HEAP, Elder Abuse Prevention, outreach and advocacy. He started many of these programs, growing OFA from the beginning services which centered on senior nutrition to the addition of long-term home services, transportation and more recently health insurance counseling.
In my opinion the program closest to his heart and one of the most difficult to become proficient in is the Medicare Health Insurance Counseling or HIICAP program. Ron gets a lot of satisfaction from helping people to navigate the complicated choices of different Medicare insurance programs including regular Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicare supplements and Part D. Over the past 4 years, I have dubbed him the ''Medicare Guru.'' Ron earned this title honestly not only because of his expertise on the different insurance programs but also his ability to disseminate weekly changes on these programs to most of the people in the county who are counseling seniors about insurance. In addition to the OFA staff of health insurance counselors, Ron was involved with ongoing education of many professionals in other county departments and the community as well as seniors. Ron made health insurance choices easy to understand even when the situation was very complicated. He also developed a network of legal, state and federal advisors who could assist with extremely complicated insurance situations or advocate for the rights of seniors if needed.
There are so many things I could tell you about what a great person Ron is, but it would embarrass Ron even more. I will just tell you one thing that struck me the most since I became director. He probably thinks this is trivial but it touched me deeply and demonstrates the integrity and thoughtfulness of this man. When I became OFA director in 2007, Ron had already decided to retire prior to my appointment but delayed doing so until the summer because he did not want any gossip to surface that his retirement had anything to do with hiring me as the new OFA director. I cannot tell you Ron how thoughtful and considerate I thought that was. Then, even though he wanted to retire, he let me talk him into four more years of part-time service with OFA that gave me time to grow as the director and learn from him.
Ron officially retired on Dec. 7, but we had another retirement earlier in the year that was also a great loss to our organization and that was Mary Ella Faust. Mary Ella has been with our office almost as long as Ron. She started in the nutrition program delivering meals to shut in seniors around the county, but it was apparent from the beginning that she had much more to offer our organization. Mary Ella's title was ''aging service specialist,'' and she was in charge of most our reporting to state, federal and private grants. An expert in data, she worked on federal research projects to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of aging services. She worked hand-in-hand with the financial team at OFA and all our data entry personnel to ensure that we were recording every unit of service and its impact on seniors in the community. While some people may think this sounds boring, Mary Ella brought a level of enthusiasm and commitment to her job and the office that was infectious. She also understood the importance of being able to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of aging services utilizing numbers and data to justify why it important to spend money on community long-term care services and supports for seniors. She also was personally helpful to all our staff and many contractors when it came to training on our computer software program. Pat Truax remarked to me, ''Mary Ella taught me how to really pay attention to details not only details on the SAMS system but details in my lily bed. She is such a wonderful gracious teacher.'' I think that says it all!
Both of these individuals have been invaluable to our office and to me as the director. Their many years with the organization and dealing with community partners gave me insight and advice that I could not have gotten from any book or report. I don't think I always followed everything they told me but I respected their opinions which many times influenced what I ultimately decided on an issue. They also helped to set a positive tone in our office and were surprisingly very supportive of new ideas even the off the wall ones. They assisted me whenever they could to implement changes that would benefit our department or seniors in the community and kept me grounded in reality when needed. Both of you will be missed in our everyday work life but we wish you all the joy and blessing that can be had for your retirement. Enjoy this new phase of life, the time to enjoy friends, family and new pursuits.
All the best, Mary Ann and the OFA staff.