Profile: Constant gardener —Jennie Chin Hansen, AARP president-elect
When Jennie Chin Hansen opens up about eldercare, her compassion and enthusiasm are almost palpable.She somehow manages to lend a sense of levity to a discussion about challenging long-term care topics. She blends optimism and articulate planning the way that only a seasoned professional with a penchant for positive change can.
"It's exciting to see how vision, commitment and the implementation of seemingly small changes can have a cumulative and lasting effect," Hansen says. She speaks from experience as a community nurse, advocate, educator and researcher-turned executive director for San Francisco-based On Lok Inc., a nonprofit family of organizations that provides integrated, comprehensive primary and long-term care community-based services.
A go-getter who works as well on the front lines as she does behind them, Hansen has been integral in reshaping the structure of eldercare and catapulting the On Lok philosophy into a nationally recognized program.
Hansen is now the president-elect of AARP, the huge consumer group for older Americans. It's a role she'll hold until 2008, when she officially takes the reins. She'll be the first baby boomer to lead the massive organization – and the first AARP president with such an extensive long-term care background.
"I think I bring a broader perspective on how to create both an improved sense of wellness for seniors and improved access to care," she says. Hoisting chronic care and long-term care issues higher on AARP's radar will be among her top priorities. That includes getting seniors to think about how their care will be paid for and who will provide it, and addressing care quality issues across the spectrum.
"She's a smart, genuinely compassionate person who has brought a much-needed personal touch to long-term care. She's also a great and sympathetic listener who makes time for everyone," says On Lok's Bob Edmondson, who succeeded Hansen as executive director in 2004.
At 58, Hansen has held many caregiving roles. Born in New York City and raised with her two older brothers in Boston by Chinese immigrant parents, Hansen ventured West in 1970. She earned a graduate nursing degree at the University of California – San Francisco, focusing on adolescent wellbeing.
After marrying her college sweetheart, she moved to Idaho, where she worked as a county nurse. She says she saw that people, regardless of their age or impairments, wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy and be able to receive care without leaving the familiar home environment.
Hansen's own normalcy was shaken shortly after she relocated to California to teach at San Diego State University. Her husband, who had been battling a brain tumor, passed away, leaving the then 28-year-old alone to raise their toddler son.
She taught four more years before an opportunity to work as an On Lok researcher lured her back to San Francisco. By 1984, she was caring for both of her impaired parents. Her father, who had suffered a series of apparently crippling strokes, required 24-hour care. So Hansen turned to On Lok for help. Her father thrived there, dropping from 14 medications to three and gaining enough strength to paint and eat on his own.
Despite physicians' grim prognosis, he lived five more years.
"I got to reunite my parents and my father got to know his grandson," Hansen says. "Both were able to live out their lives with dignity. It was a very fulfilling experience."
A past president of the American Society on Aging, Hansen continues to teach at San Francisco State and serve as a Medicare Payment Advisory Council commissioner.
In her spare time, she nurtures her golf game alongside her husband of 15 years, Philip Abrams. Philip was the second-grade teacher of her son, Erik, who is now a 31-year-old orthopedic surgeon.
Hansen also likes to tend her prized collection of orchids.
The hearty flowers, which can thrive in even the most difficult conditions, seem aptly suited to Hansen.
As On Lok's Edmondson puts it, "She truly is one of a kind. She never stops growing."
Jennie Chin Hansen's resume:
1970 - Earns B.S. degree from Boston College School of Nursing
1971 - Earns M.S. degree in nursing from University of California-San Francisco
1975-80 - Assistant professor, San Diego State University, School of Nursing
1993-2004 - On Lok executive director
1994-04 - Executive committee board member, national PACE Association
1996-98 - President, American Society on Aging
2005- Commissioner, Medicare Payment Advisory Commission
2006-08 - President-elect, AARP Board of Directors