Chief leaving Phila. agency on aging, proud of his life's work

At PCA headquarters, retiring president Rodney D. Williams sits in the atrium, while his successor, Holly Lange, looks through an office window.
At PCA headquarters, retiring president Rodney D. Williams sits in the atrium, while his successor, Holly Lange, looks through an office window. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: December 05, 2012

Rodney D. Williams, president of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging for 39 of its 40 years, is leaving his post this week immensely proud of all the poor and elderly Philadelphians whom he and his agency have helped.

But he also carries into retirement, along with his beloved dog, Kosmo, who comes to work with him each day, a deep sense of sadness over the struggles to secure adequate funding from the state.

"They're dismantling the program," he said.

Which program?

"Everything," he clarified.

Most PCA services are funded by the state lottery.

"We haven't received an increase in seven years," he said. "Things get cut out, things get capped. We have waiting lists now for home-care services. That means 1,500 people who are at home and need our help aren't getting it."

In an e-mail, Christina Reese, the state Aging Department's press secretary, acknowledged that there are "growing waiting lists" in county aging agencies, and they are caused by an expanding elderly population along with rising service costs and a need to provide a wide range of services.

She noted that Gov. Corbett has called for exploring private management for the state lottery to boost funding.

Williams, 71, on Tuesday will receive an award that his own agency created 12 years ago, the M. Powell Lawton award, named for one of the city's pioneers in the field of aging research.

Williams said he would accept the award for the people he works with and advocates for, not for himself.

Williams, who was paid $288,000 in 2011, took the helm of this agency in 1973, when it was not yet a year old, and he was 32. The agency was created, along with agencies like it all over the country, following the passage of the Older Americans Act by Congress.

He was a University of Pennsylvania graduate, working for the United Way, and several of his mentors created the new agency, which was set up as a nonprofit, and not a city agency, to keep it and incoming federal dollars from the clutches of then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, not known as a social services kind of guy.

It has always proudly been nonpolitical.

"I quickly grew a mustache thinking I would look older," said Williams, who still looks fit for his age.

From the beginning, the agency's mission was to meet the needs of the poorest and frailest older Philadelphians. There was no blueprint on how to do this.

They started with what they knew. The city had a couple senior centers, which sprang from the settlement house movement of an earlier era. Williams and his staff decided to build more centers in the neediest neighborhoods, including kitchens to provide meals.

Then they noticed that seniors were taking food home for neighbors or friends who were homebound. So they set up a fleet of vans, and to this day meals are delivered daily to 4,600 homebound seniors.

"We were running by the seat of our pants," Williams said of the early days. "But it felt good. You really knew you were making a difference. You could see it."

As needs emerged, programs grew. There are now legal services, home improvement, home health aides and nursing care available so people may remain in their homes.

There are funds to build ramps for seniors who want to or must stay in their old rowhouses. Programs now exist that let you hire your aunt, deacon, or neighbor to provide home health services for several hours a week - assuming that you are found to be medically or financially in need.

A big change came in 1995, when PCA was one of the pioneers in Pennsylvania of what became the Medicaid Waiver program, letting nursing-home-eligible seniors get some of those same services at home.

The agency and its myriad programs, Williams said, now serve an estimated 50,000 seniors. Its budget is $86 million with 638 employees, down from $98 million and 755 workers last year.

The great sadness for Williams as he leaves is that funds have been so reduced that the waiting lists for services are growing.

According to Williams and Holly Lange, his successor, a PCA staffer for the last 24 years, there is a lottery surplus but the governor and secretary of the Department of Public Welfare will not give those funds to PCA or agencies like it across the state.

Due to budget restrictions, Williams says, his agency recently laid off 30 nurses, who each averaged 18 home visits a week.

Williams knows that the economy is bad, and that budgets are stressed, but he believes that there is a need and the means to meet that need, and he wishes Harrisburg would be more supportive.

Philadelphia's seniors have changed a great deal in 39 years, with large numbers of Russians, Asians, and Latinos, whom PCA has worked hard to serve.

He believes that his agency is being left in the hands of a dedicated staff. He plans to spend more time at the ocean, with Kosmo, the Shih Tzu, and catch up on years of lost sleep.


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com. On Twitter @michaelvitez

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