Aging with Purpose
Author: Carrie Sturrock
Posted: May 22, 2013

Michael DeShane MA ’71, PhD ’77 and Keren Brown Wilson PhD ’83 have done a lot for older Oregonians, including funding the Aging Matters: Locally and Globally Initiative at the PSU Institute on Aging.

Alumni couple Keren Brown Wilson and Michael DeShane want to make sure that as we grow older we are valued by others and ourselves.

NO ONE should look forward to retirement.

At least that’s the way Keren Brown Wilson PhD ’83 and Michael DeShane MA ’71, PhD ’77 hope to shape the conversation as society grows proportionally older.

“Meaningful and purposeful activity is critical to people’s sense of well-being,” says Wilson. “If you’re 65, you have a good 25 years ahead of you—more than one-quarter of your life. And the notion that you don’t have anything left to do and can’t be fully integrated into society is silly.”

Wilson, 65, and DeShane, 71, have no plans to retire and much they want to accomplish. They funded the Aging Matters: Locally and Globally Initiative at the PSU Institute on Aging with $1 million, and Wilson has also been instrumental in the institute’s evolution. The initiative seeks to broaden and change the way society views aging, and Wilson and DeShane have worked with the University to highlight challenges facing the most underserved elderly here and abroad.

As true change agents for the elderly, Wilson, DeShane and a few other visionaries started the first assisted living residence in Oregon in 1983. It provided personal care services to residents in their private apartments—a radical departure from the nursing home model where residents had little independence or control. Wilson served as the residence’s first administrator and further delineated its model of care from those of nursing homes. Today, she is considered the architect of the Oregon model of assisted living, a model that has been copied across the country.

DeShane is president of Concepts in Community Living Inc., headquartered in Clackamas, which operates 17 assisted living residences, mostly in rural communities.

In June, the two will receive the College of Urban and Public Affairs’ Urban Pioneer Award—its most prestigious honor.

“They’re thoughtful and very engaged in terms of thinking about the situation in our world today and trying to identify solutions to problems,” says Margaret Neal, director of the Institute on Aging.

THE COUPLE have dedicated themselves to serious work, but weave humor into their interactions and outlook. With 7,000 to 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day for the next 18 years, they see a vital need for more policy discussions on how this demographic change will impact everything from housing to transportation to employment.

Michael DeShane visits with a resident at Rackleff Place in Canby, one of 17 assisted living residences his company, Concepts in Community Living, manages.

“Aging is not sexy,“ says Wilson. “If we could just figure out how to make it sexy.”

“That’s going to be difficult,” says DeShane.

At least, says Wilson, we can make it interesting.

That’s something both believe aging is, since older people have crucial skills, experience, and perspective—and often aren’t as worried about what other people think.

“You should think of old age as the time to get political: ‘By God, let’s go out and get them,’” says DeShane.

Or, says Wilson, simply “find something with meaning and attach yourself to it and have the same kind of fervor and passion we think is appropriate in very young people.”

In changing how society thinks about aging, Wilson and DeShane say it’s important to scrap many “age appropriate” boundaries, especially in education. Instead of considering college mostly for the 18- to 21-year-old set, society should embrace the idea that people attend periodically throughout their lives. A big goal of the Aging Matters Initiative is to make universities relevant to older people.

“We need an ageless society where starting college at 45 is no different than starting at 20,” says DeShane, adding, in a nod to the IFC television show Portlandia, “We want Portland to be a place where old people go to unretire.”

The DeShane Wilson Scholarship, which the couple established in 2007, is helping students in their 20s, but is open to those of any age. The scholarship is for students who complete two years at Clackamas Community College and then transfer to PSU to earn a bachelor’s degree. Preference is given to health studies and social science students. So far, eight DeShane Wilson scholars have graduated from Portland State, three others attend the University, and several more attend Clackamas Community College.

“We invest in scholarships because we believe they have the power to change lives and because we derive pleasure from returning the investment others have made in us,” says Wilson. “Most of us have benefited from someone’s kindness at some point in our lives.”

FOCUSED KINDNESS is a good descriptor for Wilson, who now spends most of her days running the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation. She established the foundation in the mid 1970s and later named it after her mother, whose nursing home experience of no door locks or independence prompted her to ask her daughter, then a graduate student, “Why don’t you do something to help people like me?”

The foundation works with PSU as well as Concordia and Pacific universities on student service learning projects to help poor and elderly people in Nicaragua. At PSU, students take a spring course and then spend two weeks in Nicaragua building physical improvements like handrails. They also train caregivers and medical first responders on what to do when an elderly person falls, becomes lost, or has a heart attack.

“If your family can’t take care of you, you are in a world of hurt,” says Wilson. “It’s just a lot of extreme poverty.”

And the problem isn’t just in Nicaragua. By 2050, 80 percent of the world’s elderly population will be in developing countries.

The foundation just started a new initiative in Appalachia where a big challenge is protecting the elderly from drug-addicted children and grandchildren. Wilson wants to create a special community health worker program to train older people to help their peers recognize and come to terms with the abuse. That model could be replicated across the U.S. since the problem is becoming endemic.

These specially trained workers would also help their peers handle chronic medical conditions. Evidence suggests Baby Boomers, particularly those born between 1946 and 1964, will experience more health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, says Wilson. Partly, she says, it’s diet and partly people are simply living longer due to advances in modern medicine. DeShane himself had fairly routine heart valve replacement surgery at 65.

But the model of care DeShane and Wilson promote is intentionally not a “medical model” that treats a person as a disease or set of problems, says Paula Carder, a faculty member in PSU’s Institute on Aging. Instead it’s a “social model” that considers a person’s life history and honors their independence—including allowing people to make choices that could be judged bad from a medical standpoint.

ALTHOUGH THEY have no plans to retire, Wilson, who has worked long days for many years, would like to work a little less. The two have a child from DeShane’s first marriage and four grandchildren. They have 38 nieces and nephews. And four cats. Wilson wants to spend more time with family and friends, work on her genealogy research, and volunteer for organizations whose missions she supports. DeShane plays golf when he can, he says, “but not well.” He occasionally tinkers with old cars. The two live in Happy Valley, have a home in Bend, but like to travel. They’ve been to every continent except Antarctica.

DeShane won’t stop working in part because there is so much to do for the frail and elderly. And his friends are at work.

It’s his purpose.


Carrie Sturrock is a Portland freelance writer.