Dr. Jennifer Sasser, human sciences chair and gerontology program director, is one of several experts who will lead Oregon Humanities' Talking About Dying Series starting in September 2015.
By the age of 19, Dr. Jim Davis knew what he wanted to do with his life.
"Seniors," he shared. "That was 'my thing.' I grew up with a lot of seniors in my life, and I had a lot of intergenerational friendships." His affection for seniors, coupled with an insatiable interest in policy and politics, naturally wove together and formed a long career in educating about and advocating for seniors, specifically those living with mental illness, disability and addiction.
His advocacy efforts began in the mid-1970s. He and college friend Ron Wyden helped organize the Oregon state chapter of the Gray Panthers, a national advocacy organization devoted to seniors' issues. When Wyden was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1980, Jim and his wife — who was Wyden's chief of staff — moved to the east coast. Jim continued his advocacy efforts, alongside teaching at the University of Maryland.
Upon returning to Oregon, Jim served as the administrator of the Oregon State Senate Human Resources Committee and was later named a commissioner on the Governor's Commission on Senior Services. Beginning in the late 80s he also served as executive director of the Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens and executive director of United Seniors of Oregon — positions that he still holds today.
Jim was reappointed to the Governor's Commission on Senior Services in 2012, and he was most recently appointed to the statewide SB 21 Steering Committee, which will review the current senior support system and present a strategic plan on how to best update the system for the changing needs and population of Oregon's seniors. The committee will submit a final report to the Oregon Legislature by February 2015.
With so much devotion, time and energy in policy work, it is somewhat astonishing that Jim is also an associate professor in the Department of Human Sciences, where he coordinates the psychology and social sciences programs and teaches psychology, gerontology and social policy. He's been at Marylhurst for 10 years.
"The opportunity at Marylhurst allowed me to get back into teaching," he said. "I love the opportunity to help advise students that will go out into the field. I like to help them think about what kind of impact they can have and how they can get there."
One of the ways he accomplishes that process is through field experience. Jim takes his students to Salem, Oregon each year so they can witness the legislative process and then integrates those experiences back into coursework.
"It's all connected," Jim said. "The advocacy, the policy, the concepts I teach in my psychology, gerontology and social policy classes — they all mesh together and inform one another."
Students on the hill
In the summer of 2013, Jim authored a report issued by the Legislative Work Group on Senior and Disability Mental Health and Addictions. Two Marylhurst students served as research assistants for the report: Jane O'Brien, a psychology major, and Glenna Wilder, a social sciences major.
As part of their efforts, Jane and Glenna created a comprehensive, annotated bibliography of their research.
"It's one of the most extensive reviews of literature on the subject that had been done in Oregon for years," Jim said.
That bibliography is now being published as a resource for senior and disability providers and advocates throughout Oregon.
The report was followed by the inclusion of a budget note in the Oregon Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority budgets, where they must report to the 2015 Oregon Legislature on their progress on the work group recommendations. That may not mean much to a non-lobbyist, but Jim explained that such a note places increased pressure on Oregon's legislators to take action and address a specific set of senior issues.
"Our efforts could immediately result in bringing in 3 to 4 million dollars to support geriatric specialists for mentally ill seniors in community mental health centers," Jim said.
Tough, yet rewarding work
Jim admits that policy work can be tough. He has seen the creation and elimination of many programs for seniors, and advocacy efforts can be repetitious at times. He speaks of walking up and down the same hallways, reiterating the same requests and appeals with different legislators.
"You ask for the same programs and resources again and again. You get told 'no' a lot," he said. "You've got to have thick skin."
Yet, he continues his work — with seemingly boundless enthusiasm. That energy heightens when he talks about his students. He perceives himself not only as an advocate for Oregon's seniors, but his own students as well. Jim offers counsel and advice to his students as they prepare for professional careers, and he prides himself on his practical outlook.
"Dreams are great," he said, "but I like talking with my students on how those dreams can translate into a fulfilling career that supports them financially."
Whether his students choose to enter policymaking and advocacy or the support and social services that he advocates for at the state capitol, Jim enjoys watching his students discover the best and unique ways they can influence their chosen fields.
"The need [for senior services] will only increase," Jim said. "The aging population will double in size between 2030 and 2050. People have no concept of what that actually means."
Jim will likely never "retire" from advocacy work; it's as much a part of him as blood and oxygen. Yet, if or whenever he does retire, he will have inspired a new generation of passionate, informed advocates, psychologists, gerontologists and researchers who will carry forward the important work of senior care.