Keeping senior citizens healthy, wealthy and wise

Complex issues face a growing elderly population

Latinos growing old in L.A.

Put together by the Partnership for Evidence-Based Solutions in Elder Health, The State Aging and Health Among Older Latinos in Los Angeles 2009 report identifies key health priorities and concerns for this population.

The report, which Villa co-authored, examines a variety of public health, census, and economic data that describe the demographic, geographic, and health profiles of Latinos aged 65 years and older.

To read more about the partnership's discoveries and recommendations, read the report online.

Cal State L.A. Social Work Professor Valentine Villa has dedicated her academic career to better understanding, planning and caring for the elderly.

Through research, Villa has examined the affects of public policies on the health and economic status of elderly populations—studying Medicare reform and privatizing social security, for instance—and shed light on racial and ethnic health disparities within this group. One of the greatest misconceptions, she says, is that people aged 65 and older are largely thought of as a homogenous group with similar aches, pains and concerns.

“But they are not,” said Villa, who also directs the University’s Applied Gerontology Institute, an interdisciplinary certificate program that matriculates about 500 people annually. “There are so many great disparities.”

And with the first wave of a diverse population of baby boomers reaching age 65 next year, Villa’s work is more important than ever. By the year 2050, it is projected that the population age 65 and over will double from what it is today to include roughly 87 million individuals.

In an effort to help prepare the county—and the country—for that shift, Villa has participated in a number of new research efforts through the Applied Gerontology Institute and other partnerships. The first person in the country to graduate with a Ph.D. in gerontology (USC), Villa has been active in the field for 17 years.

She has an “unwavering commitment to improving the lives of seniors through her research; and [a] devotion to being a teacher who inspires a similar commitment among her students,” said Steven Wallace, a professor and vice-chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health.

Over the last four years, Villa and faculty from Cal State L.A’s School of Social Work partnered with Beverly Hospital to provide a support and training intervention program to hundreds of economically and socially diverse caregivers in the Montebello area. The goal of the program, developed by a professor at Stanford University, was to improve the well-being, and reduce stress and depression among people who assume the responsibility of caring for a family member, friend or loved one.

“They cover everything from the practical stuff, like how to bathe someone, diaper an adult and avoid bed sores, to how to speak with your physician, and cope with the psychological aspects of it all,” Villa explained, noting that over the course of the eight-week training session they “saw a significant decrease in depression among caregivers.”

In a similar vein, Villa is in the process of developing a six-part program to promote health literacy in the primarily Latino, local community. She got the idea for the program from data collected as the co-chair of research for the Los Angeles Partnership for Evidence-Based Solutions in Elder Health. The partnership, initiated in 2007, released a 2009 report on The State of Aging and Health Among Older Latinos in Los Angeles.

The report highlighted key health concerns facing older Latinos in the area, such as a higher rate of obesity, diabetes and arthritis diagnoses. It also pointed out that while this rapidly growing sector of the population lives longer than others, Latinos are doing so with much poorer health than the overall elderly population.

“Everything that we do here (at the institute) has to have an application,” said Villa. She was recently recognized with a Certificate of Commendation by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and by the Los Angeles City Council for her contributions to the report and ongoing work with the city’s aging community.

“I sat with that report, and asked myself what did we learn from this? How can we do something that will improve people’s chances? And it occurred to me that we could provide programs that focus on health literacy—getting folks into programs that stress the importance of prevention, adherence to physicians, and medication management would be a start.”

An area in which Villa exceeds is the “practical application of her work,” said Laura Trejo, the general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Aging. Villa’s dedication not only to research, but to changing lives is evident in improved care for seniors and their families throughout the county, Trejo said.

“…She has led the way for a whole generation of academic researchers,” she added.