MT. Helix resident Paul Downey, CEO & president of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives
Mt Helix resident Paul Downey started as a volunteer with Serving Seniors, a local non-profit that works to help seniors in poverty through various programs to support their health and living conditions. Now, 30 years later, he serves as the organization’s president and CEO, a position he’s held for more than 20 of those years, while also serving as chair of the California Commission on Aging and has been appointed to the board of the American Society on Aging.
“We are a one-stop shop of compassionate care for San Diego’s poorest seniors,” he says, noting programs like meal delivery, housing, education, or exercise. “There is a direct correlation between keeping seniors healthy and their independence. Independent seniors are happy, productive members of the community.”
Downey, 57, lives in Mount Helix with his wife. A former journalist, and press secretary for the mayor’s office in San Diego, he began volunteering for Serving Seniors while he was working at San Diego City Hall. He took some time to talk about his work with the local non-profit, the state commission and national organization, and the specific challenges faced by low-income seniors.
Q: Why did you want to work for Serving Seniors?
A: I grew up in a suburban middle class family and only knew about poverty from the news and college classes, but I had never seen the physical, mental and emotional toll of living in poverty until I started volunteering at Serving Seniors. The visceral impact of speaking with seniors who literally did not know where they would sleep that night or where their next meal might come from profoundly changed me. I was inspired by the stories of perseverance and hope despite the odds from people who had not caught many breaks in their lives.
Q: Which programs does Serving Seniors offer that seem to get the greatest response from the people you serve?
A: Our most important program is providing 600,000 nutritious meals annually in San Diego County to seniors living in poverty. We serve the meals at 10 sites and deliver to about 500 home-bound seniors each day. Our flagship facility, the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center downtown, serves meals and provides services 365 days per year. … Studies have shown that a nutritious meal for a senior is as important as taking medications and exercising to maintain and improve overall health. A program with major impact is our Homeless Prevention Program. It is a “housing first” model that gets seniors off the street and into their own unit with intensive case management. We are very proud that 91 percent of seniors coming through this program have remained permanently housed.
Q: Tell us about your work with the California Commission on Aging.
A: The commission serves as the principal state advocate for the issues and concerns of older Californians. We have statutory responsibility to advise the governor, state legislature, and state departments on legislation, regulations and rule-making that impacts seniors. … My primary duty is to ensure that all perspectives relating to older Californians are considered when making recommendations.
What I love about Mount Helix …
I love the feeling of being in the country yet only about 20 minutes from downtown San Diego and the beach.
Q: What issues does the commission find to currently be most pressing for seniors in California?
A: Economic security and poverty are significant issues that disproportionately impact women and seniors of color. Elder Justice — essentially protecting vulnerable seniors from physical, mental and financial abuse — remains a critical concern. Increasing the number of senior affordable housing units, improving our public transportation network, helping caregivers and bolstering healthcare, especially dental care, are all among our legislative priorities.
Q: What is some of the legislation the commission has been involved in to help seniors?
A: One initiative particularly important to me was the extensive work to increase state funding by $2 million for senior home-delivered meals. Other bills included efforts to give elder abuse victims access to state victim compensation funds, better caregiver support, more funds for affordable senior housing and improvements to Medi-Cal.
Q: In your view, what would an ideal quality of life look like for low-income seniors?
A: The key element is having a safe, affordable place to live. Too many seniors pay three-quarters of their monthly income in rent for deplorable living conditions in unsafe buildings. Seniors should not to have to worry about whether their basic needs can be met. Access to food, transportation and healthcare are keys to maintaining health and independence.
Q: What are some of the challenges specific to low-income seniors?
A: Limited income directly impacts health and wellness. Low-income seniors often can’t access healthy food because of the cost, do not regularly see their doctor to manage chronic health conditions and often use the emergency room for non-emergency care. Poverty also limits housing choices, often causing seniors to live in very expensive substandard units. Many of our seniors live in
Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels that average around $700 for a 90-square-foot room with a shared bathroom down the hall. Many of these units are infested with bed bugs, lice, cockroaches and rodents. The average income for our seniors is $850 month — this means they have about $150 for all other expenses after paying their rent.
Q: What are some solutions to those challenges?
A: Everyone at Serving Seniors is laser-focused on keeping seniors healthy. This means providing healthy meals and care coordination to ensure that seniors properly manage chronic health conditions. This reduces the need for emergency room treatment, hospitalizations and/or long-term care. We also need to build more affordable and safe housing for seniors.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work over the years?
A: The challenge is raising enough money to meet the needs of our seniors and keep up with a dramatically aging population.
Q: What’s been rewarding about your work?
A: If I’m having a tough day, all I have to do is walk through one of our centers and chat with the seniors. There is always a buzz of activity and seeing happy, engaged, faces always lifts my spirits. They also are not shy about sharing their enormous gratitude for all the services provided by the agency thanks to our generous donors.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a result of your work?
A: Gratitude, and some guilt that I’ve never worried about where my next meal is coming from or whether I have a safe place to sleep for the night.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: It came from my mentor, Peter Kaye, former associate editor of the San Diego Union. He told me to be ambitious and strive to be the best, but never compromise my integrity or my honesty for anyone.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: That I love music of all genres. My wife and I have season tickets to the San Diego Symphony, but are equally happy at a Beach Boys or Peter White concert. We also love to find local music venues when we travel to other countries.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Starting the day by hiking one of the many beach, mountain or desert trails in San Diego County with my wife. Alternatively, kayaking in Mission Bay or one of the local lakes. Then heading out to brunch followed by some gardening. In the evening, enjoying the view of Mt. Miguel from our deck with a glass of red wine from Temecula.