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Huffington Post Blog: Have We Forgotten About Our Nation’s Seniors?

While the number of seniors in America is growing dramatically, the amount of charitable giving to this increasingly vulnerable population has remained roughly the same for each of the last 20 years. It is truly a travesty that each year less than two percent of all philanthropic dollars go toward helping older Americans age in place with access to high-quality and affordable health and social support services. We must do better.

How could we let this happen when millions of seniors across the country, especially those living on fixed incomes, are forced to choose between food, medicine and shelter? What’s more, many must navigate a complex health and social support system that is not currently scaled or structured to meet the needs of a growing aging population.

Out of 105,000 private, nonprofit foundations in America, only a few are dedicated solely to addressing the needs of older adults. Recently, I talked to several leaders in aging to get their perspectives on the importance of philanthropy, and asked why so few charitable dollars are focused on seniors. Here’s what they had to say:

“The need is so large that many feel their philanthropy won’t make a difference,” said John Feather, Ph.D., CEO, Grantmakers in Aging , a leading national association of charitable foundations and corporate giving programs which works to improve the lives of older adults. “However, a society that is better for older adults is better for people of all ages, and philanthropy can — and does — play an important role.”

“I believe ageism is at the root of why more philanthropic dollars are not dedicated to older adults,” said Laura Rath, MSG, Senior Program Officer, Archstone Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that has awarded more than $102 million in grants to help meet the needs of an aging population. “Also, a confounding problem is viewing aging as a zero-sum game, where if one gains, another must lose. Improving the lives of older adults has the potential to improve society in general.”

“Philanthropy often serves as a catalyst in bringing attention to less visible but increasingly important challenges facing our communities,” said Ann Monroe, Chair of the Board of Directors, Grantmakers in Aging. “From the increasing economic and medical pressure on family caregivers to the lack of strong social policies supporting healthy aging, philanthropy has the flexibility and resources to develop new models of care and drive the public and policy discussions needed to support successful and respectful aging.”

“Now is the time for philanthropy to move our country forward by investing in strategies that enable every older adult in America to age with dignity and respect we all deserve,” said Mary O’ Donnell, Senior Program Officer, The Retirement Research Foundation, a private foundation that has awarded more than $200 million in grants to improve the quality of life for our nation’s older adults.

This week, the Gary and Mary West Foundation celebrates its 10-year anniversary. As CEO and president of this foundation, I have seen firsthand the power of philanthropy in kick-starting and shining a light on innovative models of care for seniors from geriatric emergency departments and senior dental centers to aging in place programs, and senior wellness centers that offer health, wellness, social support services and nutritious meals every single day of the year. We’ve awarded over $175 million to 181 grant recipients who are making a real difference in the lives of seniors everywhere. And, we have only just begun. Our founders, pioneering philanthropists Gary and Mary West, have dedicated their lives – and their fortune – to enabling successful aging for vulnerable seniors.

The Gary and Mary West Foundation, Archstone Foundation and The Retirement Research Foundation represent the handful of foundations focused solely on aging. Others include The John A. Hartford Foundation, H.W. Durham Foundation, The Scan Foundation and Isaac H. Tuttle Fund.

But, this small group of foundations simply cannot do it alone. This is the one time I wish we weren’t so unique in our laser focus on seniors. We’re trying to serve as a catalyst for philanthropists and other foundations to get involved, come up with new solutions, and raise awareness about the critical issues facing our seniors. Seniors are our parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, neighbors and our veterans. They deserve our best thinking, our utmost respect and greater attention from our nation’s philanthropists and foundations that have the power to galvanize and create a better place for the seniors who taught us, cared for us, fought for us and now count on us.





Shelley Lyford
President & CEO
West Health and Gary and Mary West Foundation

A Note to our Collaborators: Gary and Mary West Foundation Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary


Today is a proud day as we celebrate an exciting milestone, the 10-year anniversary of the Gary and Mary West Foundation. More than 10 years ago, I had the great honor of meeting Gary and Mary West, two extraordinarily successful entrepreneurs and visionaries who were planning to devote their entire fortune to making a positive impact in the lives of others.

Gary and Mary could have chosen any cause, any issue or any segment of our population to help with their money, time, passion, creativity and intellectual leadership. They chose to help vulnerable seniors—one of the most underserved and forgotten populations in this country. In 2006, their Foundation was born and their legacy began.

Our anniversary celebration this week focuses on a decade of making a difference through the successful aging work of our grantees. It is wonderful to think about how many seniors’ lives we’ve touched over the past decade, helping restore their dignity and respect through the Foundation’s more than $175 million in grants to 181 organizations. Seniors who otherwise would have gone hungry, are provided with nutritious meals; seniors who were not able to chew, can now eat and smile; and seniors who never thought it would be possible to access care or basic social services, are hopeful and resilient.

I recently interviewed leaders from several foundations doing great work for seniors and asked for their perspectives on why so few others are focused on aging. I incorporated their insights into a Huffington Post blog titled, “Have we Forgotten About our Nation’s Seniors?”

Please feel free to share our anniversary video, press release and blog on social media to encourage more people to join in our mission to ensure seniors receive the care and respect they deserve.

Thank you, Gary and Mary, for inspiring us every day, and to all of you for your support and dedication to improving the lives of our seniors everywhere!

Best Wishes,

Shelley Lyford

“Seniors Count!” – Rallying at the California State Capital in Support of Seniors

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Just after midnight on May 11, more than 100 seniors from across Southern California boarded buses headed to Sacramento where more than 500 older adults were gathering on the front lawn of the State Capitol building for the “Seniors Count” Rally 2016. The event, which took place during Older Americans Month, brought elected officials, community service providers and committed advocates together in support of making our state “truly the Golden State for Californians in their golden years.”

Helping to kick off the rally was Paul Downey, Serving Seniors president and CEO and chairman of the California Commission on Aging (CCoA). Downey shared the shocking statistic that fifty percent of California’s seniors lack sufficient income to pay for basic housing, food, healthcare, transportation and other basic expenses to survive in a state that has seen a significant number of devastating cuts to programs that provide critical assistance to older adults. “Our seniors have only shown us determination, fortitude and dignity in making a difference,” Downey said. “The time is now to make a change. We need to build the infrastructure that allows seniors to not only survive, but to thrive.”

A shining star of the rally was Assemblymember Cheryl Moore, current chair of the Aging and Long-Term Care Committee, who led the efforts to organize last week’s event. With over 1,000 seniors in California turning 65 every day, she stressed that it is our collective responsibility as a society to help seniors age with dignity and respect. “California’s aging population faces a diverse set of challenges, and this rally presents a forum that will allow the Legislature to work with seniors and find solutions to the issues they face.” Assemblymember Moore continued, saying that older adults in our state should not have to fight against budget cuts, see critical programs disappear and struggle to navigate a burdensome and complicated healthcare system without proper support in place. “My number one priority is to give a voice to our state’s senior community.”

State Senator Carol Liu, also chair of the Select Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care, told the crowd that now is the time for California to reinvest in its seniors. ”It’s your turn to let everyone know that seniors count,” Senator Liu said as she led the audience in a series of cheers in support of older adults. “We want dignity, to age in place and respect.”

Assemblymember David Hadley spoke of the compounding issues that surround lack of access to reliable and affordable transportation that can prevent seniors from aging in place. He stressed that our society needs to put measures in place to ensure that seniors are not forced out of their homes and communities before they are ready. One of his goals is to ensure that seniors can stay with dignity in the communities where they make their homes.

Also featured at the event was the important, yet often overlooked work of caregivers– those individuals who provide unpaid care and support to family members such as grocery shopping, transporting to doctors’ appointments and providing extensive medical care at home. Nina Weiler, associate state director for AARP and passionate advocate for older adults, pointed out that there are over 4.4 million caregivers in the state who provide care to loved ones an average of 20 hours a week without pay, which equates to $57 billion in unpaid care in California.

In total, more than ten state Assemblymen and Senators took the stage in support of three main goals: enabling aging in place, protecting vulnerable seniors and providing advocacy and information for seniors.  After the rally, attendees were encouraged to share their personal stories and experiences with aging during advocacy visits with their respective State Senators and Assemblymembers inside the Capital offices throughout the day.

“Share your stories today as only a senior can – with wisdom, courage and knowledge,” said Micheal Pope, executive director of Alzheimer’s Center of East Bay. Former California Assemblymember Mariko Yamada closed the inspiring event with an important reminder that our state is making a financial comeback, but that recovery is uneven and unfair. “Restoration and implementation of senior services needs to be a priority,” said Yamada.

At West Health and the Gary and Mary West Foundation, we couldn’t agree more. It’s why we’re committed to enabling seniors to age successfully with dignity, quality of life and independence through our applied medical research, policy and advocacy and outcomes-based philanthropy. With the U.S. in the midst of its largest demographic shift to date, the 2016 Seniors Count Rally was an important event to raise awareness in Sacramento and beyond of the need for our elected officials to take strong action to address the unique needs of seniors. As a society, we simply can’t afford not to.

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– Shelley Lyford
President and Chief Executive Officer
Gary and Mary West Foundation

A Look Back: Six Years of Serving San Diego’s Seniors – A Celebration of the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center

In 2009, our founders Gary and Mary drove through downtown San Diego and saw a line of seniors standing outside on the corner of Broadway and 9th Avenue, waiting their turn for a hot meal inside the former Senior Community Center facility.

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Only a few years before, Gary and Mary launched their Foundation to address the sad and shocking statistic that only two percent of philanthropic dollars are allocated to aging and helping seniors, a population that so desperately needs our help. The pressing needs of our nation’s seniors  resonated so deeply with Gary and Mary for many reasons, including their own difficult experience trying to navigate a complex healthcare system on behalf of their aging parents.

From that point, Gary and Mary committed to working with Paul Downey and his team to help low-income San Diego seniors receive the quality services they need to live healthy and independent lives. In 2010, the Foundation provided three million dollars to Senior Community Centers (now known as Serving Seniors) to establish the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, a state-of-the-art senior wellness center that would serve San Diego seniors who are living in or near poverty. Their shared goal was to create an inviting, easy-to-access, one-stop-shop for seniors where meals would continue to be the cornerstone, but an array of clinical, health and social services would also be offered to ensure seniors stay healthy, regardless of their ability to pay for services. Their long-term vision was for the Senior Wellness Center to serve as a national model to be shared with anyone who wanted to replicate it, and that their investment would be leveraged to become a catalyst for serving hundreds of thousands of seniors who basic human needs are not being met across this country.

Over the past six years, we have partnered closely with the Serving Seniors team to ensure that the Senior Wellness Center becomes the national model that Gary and Mary set out to create. Through one program, seniors can receive health benefits counseling to assist with navigating healthcare systems, obtain affordable care, and significantly reduce out-of-pocket medical expenses. Another program utilizes a Geriatric Care Coordinator to ensure clients understand their health conditions and care plans and empowers clients to make well-informed decisions to improve their health. The popular Cyber Café is another service which is available seven days a week to provide seniors with free computer access and assistance.

I would like to take a moment to  share a few fond memories from celebrating the Senior Wellness Center anniversaries over the years. On our third anniversary, Serving Seniors was able to shred their final mortgage statement as a symbol that all debt incurred to build the Senior Wellness Center was paid off thanks to the support of the Foundation and other generous donors. The fourth anniversary brought Mayor Faulconer and the City of San Diego to proclaim April 11 as the “Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center Day.” And last year, we were already well underway on our plans to build the state-of-the-art Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center integrated within the Senior Wellness Center. Now, we are nearing the day when we can finally open the doors to provide high-quality, affordable dental care to our senior clients.

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I’m encouraged by our recent efforts to coordinate our medical and policy research with our outcomes-based philanthropy work at the Senior Wellness Center. We’re gathering health, wellness and economic data, in collaboration with the University of California, San Diego, to demonstrate the positive outcomes that community-based care coordination can have on the lives of seniors and their families.

I’m so proud of where we have come and where we are headed, together, as one team together working in partnership with Serving Seniors. The services are seamless and the seniors are better able to live with independence and dignity. Here’s to another six great years!



Health Affairs’ GrantWatch focuses on Foundation’s and West Health’s efforts to increase access to dental care for seniors

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Health Affairs’ GrantWatch blog today featured a submission from the Gary and Mary West Foundation’s program officer, Vyan Nguyen, M.D., outlining the journey to develop an innovative approach to addressing critical oral healthcare needs for low-income seniors in San Diego.

The Foundation has already invested more than $1 million to create the state-of-the-art Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, which is scheduled to open later this year and will be an important location for the West Health Institute’s research on coordinating dental care with healthcare and social services for seniors in need. The Senior Dental Center will be integrated within the Senior Wellness Center, providing comprehensive community-based clinical, dental, and social services, all under one roof.

“Every senior visiting the Senior Dental Center will receive a Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment designed to evaluate their functional ability and physical, dental, mental, and other socioenvironmental circumstances to ensure they receive the right care at the right time,” said Nguyen, program officer at the Foundation. “Our goal is to ensure that older adults receive the holistic care and services that allow them to stay healthy, regardless of their ability to pay for services.”

Please click here to read the full post in Health Affairs’ blog.


Oral Health Should Not Take a Backseat to General Health, Particularly for Seniors in Need

Despite major advances in dentistry and the ability to prevent many oral healthcare issues, dental disease remains a significant and widespread public health problem in America, and the problem is no more severe than among lower-income seniors, who are struggling to make ends meet and for whom seeing a dentist is a luxury most cannot afford.

This was the subject of a panel discussion I participated in at the 2016 Aging in America Conference #AiA16 in Washington, DC, where increasing attention is being paid to oral health issues as a leading health indicator and how those who need care the most may be the least likely to get it.

Medicare, the largest health provider for people 65 and older, does not cover routine dental care and dental services under Medicaid vary state by state. Further, where a Medicaid dental benefit does exist, access to it is extremely limited due to low reimbursement rates for dentists. About half of the Medicare Advantage plans offer a dental benefit. Low-income seniors  are falling through the cracks.

Oral health has maintained a secondary status in our health system despite the fact that poor oral health in seniors has been linked to poor nutrition, heart disease, breast cancer, cognitive decline, diabetes and stroke. As a society we seem more willing to address the medical consequences of poor oral health in the hospital or emergency room than to deal with it in the dentist’s chair where it belongs and where it is far less complicated and costly to prevent or treat.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), in 2012, there were nearly 2.2 million visits to the emergency room due to dental issues, costing the U.S. health care system $1.6 billion at an average cost of $749 per visit. The ADA estimates that 79 percent of these visits “could be diverted to community settings” and that patients would not only receive better care, but could save the healthcare system millions of dollars.[i]

In downtown San Diego, the Gary and Mary West Foundation and West Health Institute, in cooperation with Serving Seniors, will open the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, a unique community dental clinic that combines access to high-quality, affordable oral healthcare with comprehensive clinical and social services within a senior wellness center.

Our goal is to ensure older adults achieve and maintain long-term dental and overall health, regardless of their ability to pay for services. We hope to demonstrate through this integrated and coordinated care model that it makes far more clinical and economic sense to address dental issues than ignore them.

But we’re not just treating teeth, we’re treating people. Every person that comes to the dental clinic will receive a Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment (CGA), a tool designed to evaluate a senior’s functional ability, physical health, dental health, mental health, and socio-environmental circumstances.

This helps us go beyond solving issues in isolation and facilitates access to the broader range of services that can improve the overall health and wellness of seniors. Through the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center, seniors have access to more than 30 nonprofit organizations with community-based services that cover nutrition, mental health, health and wellness, housing and social services. We think this community-based model can work for seniors and not only bring smiles back to their faces, but help them enjoy a new level of health and wellness and quality of life.

If improvements in access to dental care, affordability, education and awareness do not occur, oral disease and related health issues may rise to become as big a public health issue as falls, lack of mobility, and cognitive and memory problems among older adults. We must act and employ new models of care that are both affordable and effective. Standing by is no longer an option.

For more information visit

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Shelley Lyford
President and CEO, Gary and Mary West Foundation
President and Chief Executive, West Health Institute



Gary and Mary West Foundation and West Health Institute Commend the House of Representatives for Passing Older Americans Act

Gary and Mary West Foundation and The West Health Institute commend the House of Representatives for passing the Older Americans Act (OAA), critical legislation that strengthens support services for seniors and their caregivers. It also includes, for the first time, oral screenings for preventive care.

“We’re pleased that the House has passed the Older Americans Act which helps provide access to many of the social services and resources that enable our nation’s seniors to age successfully with dignity, quality of life and independence,” said Shelley Lyford, president and chief executive officer of the West Health Institute.

“We look forward to the president’s signature following Senate action,” Lyford said. “We are especially pleased that for the first time, the act recognizes the importance of oral health screenings, which can lead to early detection and prevention—helping to avoid more serious health care conditions for our aging population.”

The bill now includes a provision that allows the aging network to use funds they receive for disease prevention and health promotion activities to conduct oral health screenings, and does not require new or increased appropriations. These types of screenings could be helpful in helping address oral health issues among seniors, which have been shown to be indicators of overall health.

Please click here to learn more about the Older Americans Act from the National Council on Aging, and click here to learn more about the West Health Institute, Gary and Mary West Foundation and Serving Seniors’ efforts to improve oral healthcare for seniors in San Diego.


West Health and Foundation Support Serving Seniors’ Hidden Hungry Campaign: Employees Give $15,000 to Seniors with a Generous Contribution Match

To make a difference in San Diego seniors’ lives this holiday season, West Health and Gary and Mary West Foundation employees donated $10,290 to Serving Seniors, a non-profit organization committed to improving the well-being of low-income seniors, as part of its “Hidden Hungry” fundraising campaign.

West Health and Foundation representatives presented a check to Serving Seniors during a meal service at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center on Dec. 21. Every dollar raised by West Health and Foundation employees was matched by the Foundation, as well as the generous Schmale family, adding up to a total of more than $15,000 in donations.

“Every single day we are reminded of the many seniors who face very difficult challenges, choosing between food and shelter and often feeling hopeless, alone and hungry, especially around the holidays,” said Shelley Lyford, president and CEO of West Health and the Gary and Mary West Foundation. “I’m proud of our employee’s strong support for this important campaign.”

Funds raised during the Hidden Hungry campaign provide nutritious meals, health and wellness services, affordable housing, and lifelong learning opportunities Serving Seniors provides to low-income seniors in San Diego.

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Left to right: Dr. Vyan Nguyen of the Gary and Mary West Foundation, Paul Downey of Serving Seniors, Diana Campau of West Health and Mary West present Serving Seniors with a ceremonial check for more than $10,000.

Successful Aging: A Future to Look Forward To

“Successful aging is a future we can look forward to,” John Rother, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC), told me recently. “It’s a future where seniors are financially secure, have as good health conditions as possible and are active and engaged in their chosen communities.”

John leads an organization dedicated to bringing key stakeholders together to achieve an affordable, high-value healthcare system. Made up of more than 85 organizations, the NCHC represents consumers, providers and payors. John has decades of experience in the aging space, having served as the long-time executive vice president for policy, strategy and international affairs at AARP. Previously, he was staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Special Committee on Aging from 1981 to 1984.

So how do we help ensure seniors in this country have the freedom to age successfully?

According to John, we need to do things to make our healthcare system more responsive to the unique needs of this growing senior population.

As people get frailer, “there are many other necessary services that aren’t physician-based that they need,” said John. “We can deliver care outside of a hospital through care coordination and long-term supportive services to help seniors age successfully at home.

“To ensure good care outcomes for seniors living at home, we need to look at the home environment and whether or not a spouse or caregiver is present to help provide care. Either way, the role of the nurse, social worker and/or home healthcare worker are critical pieces of the care coordination puzzle,” he said.

So what are other challenges to delivering effective care outside of the hospital?

John pointed out where a senior lives determines what kinds of services he or she can access. Many necessary services and supports can be delivered at home, keeping costs down and allowing seniors to maintain their independence. But they need to be coordinated. Both informal and formal caregivers need the proper tools and training to ensure safe, effective care is being provided.

“In many parts of the country, especially in rural America, there isn’t much in the way of services,” John stated. “We have much more to do in terms of developing the workforce that’s appropriate to give people tools to access the care they need.”

Other important considerations for this fast-growing, diverse senior population are access to public transportation, the telecommunications infrastructure and the existence of supportive housing.

“Healthcare is such a huge challenge and it’s multi-dimensional. It will probably always be the toughest and most important issue we are facing in this country.”

When I asked John where successful aging models exist in this country, he offered New York City because of the wealth of services available, planned retirement communities in Florida, and naturally-occurring senior neighborhoods appearing across the country. “Whether you are a resident of a big city or a small town or just in a neighborhood, there are a lot of things that you can do to improve the support of people as they age,” John said.

I’m proud to lead an organization dedicated to catalyzing a national movement for successful aging by collaborating with advocates such as John and the NCHC as well as other leading organizations to deliver meaningful solutions in service of our nation’s seniors. And we’re starting right here in our own backyard of San Diego.

Shelley Lyford
Chief Executive
West Health

President and CEO
Gary and Mary West Foundation

The Biggest Challenge and Opportunity in Healthcare Today

As our nation’s population continues to age, it’s important to look at what’s behind the numbers. Not only are seniors growing older, but a bigger percentage are minorities struggling with difficult financial uncertainty. Fewer older Americans today have access to pensions and many have not saved enough to cover basic living expenses that come with living longer.

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition and president of Matz, Blancato & Associates. Bob is a seasoned expert on senior care issues and a well-known advocate for elder justice. He has decades of experience in the healthcare space, including serving as the executive director of the 1995 White House Conference on Aging.

During our talk, we discussed the importance of turning the challenges today’s seniors face into opportunities for successful aging by focusing on four key areas: civic engagement, disease prevention, home-based care services and, perhaps most importantly, caregiving. Caregivers represent a critical component of Successful Aging, comprising family members, non-family members and paid care workers.

“We have to focus our country’s attention on caregiving,” Bob said. “It is the biggest challenge facing our nation right now. Forty-four million families have caregiving responsibilities for their relatives and we’re not prepared for it and we’re not helping our caregivers.”

“With a growing caregiving force that is largely informal, we need to rethink the way we care for our seniors. Right now, only one federal program – the Older Americans Act — and the National Family Caregivers Support Program helps family caregivers,” said Bob. “And today, only $150 million has been designated by the federal government to address the needs of this rising number of caregivers. So the math doesn’t add up.”

Traditionally, caregivers were simply defined as unpaid family members. However, today’s caregivers represent a much larger community of professional and nonprofessional providers that deliver any type of community-based services to aging adults to address a variety of basic needs such as medical and essential activities of daily living.

Presently, there are 45 million aging adults in the U.S., representing 14 percent of the population and this population is expected to grow to 79 million by the year 2030, more than 20 percent of the population. The aging of American’s population causes additional challenges for today’s caregivers.

Many caregivers are facing their own aging issues, addressing their own physical, mental and social challenges, on top of their daily caregiving responsibilities.  Now more than ever, it is imperative to launch a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary caregiver initiative – one that meets the needs of both caregivers and the recipients of care.

I look forward to collaborating with Bob, as well as other senior experts, to ensure we put in place the foundational elements of successful aging for all Americans.


Shelley Lyford
Chief Operating Officer
West Health

President and CEO
Gary and Mary West Foundation