Doctor speaks with patient
Dr. Ross Colt speaks with a patient at Gary & Mary West PACE in San Marcos.

For the past 50 years, low-income seniors aged 55 and older have benefited from Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly services that allow them to age safely in their own homes. September is National PACE Awareness Month, and organizations like the Gary & Mary West PACE in San Marcos where I work are using this time to highlight the amazing people who help our senior participants thrive. 

Here in California, PACE is a Medicare and Medi-Cal program that helps older adults who meet state requirements for nursing home level of care get comprehensive care, from medical and dental visits to occupational therapy and social outlets, while living at home instead of an institutional setting.

PACE participation has been proven to reduce hospitalizations and emergency room visits, while improving health outcomes for seniors. And, importantly, PACE helps reduce family and caregiver burnout by offering a proven, cost-effective, high-quality alternative to nursing home placement. 

Many of the seniors we serve at West PACE have cognitive or physical issues that keep them from performing the activities of daily living, such as bathing themselves or managing medications. They receive in-home visits and assistance from our talented social workers, health aides, occupational therapists and other staff, who supply them with assistive devices such as Care.Coach tablets or adaptive phones. Our transportation staff drives them to our day center in San Marcos, which celebrates its third anniversary this month, for medical, dental, physical therapy and other appointments, hot meals, and social activities. 

Each PACE participant has a centralized team of care professionals from all walks of life working with them and their families to get them the help they need. 

So, who are some of the people at West PACE who help older adults live their best lives?

Our medical director, Dr. Ross Colt, is a geriatric medicine specialist and 24-year Army veteran who is dedicated to banishing ageism in American healthcare. Dr. Colt believes in a holistic approach to patient care that aims to keep seniors socially connected, active, and mentally as well as physically healthy.

As he has put it before, “We need broad, systemic change in multiple areas of our society, including how we train our medical professionals, to ensure that seniors are treated like the valuable human beings they are.”  

Our recreation supervisor Lelatosiasamoa “Lela” Vaaeo feels that enriching the lives of older adults is her life’s calling. At our day center, you can find Lela, who is also a professional women’s football player, leading participants in chair exercise, gardening, arts and crafts, cornhole, and other daytime activities.

As one of our participants said about her, “She’s an incredible lady. She’s just a very kind person who’s very giving of her energy and time. She has this skill of meeting people where they’re at in their abilities and encouraging them to give something new a try. She’s wonderful.”

Participants who come to our San Marcos day center for physical and occupational therapy know and love Ally Armstrong, our rehab supervisor. A licensed occupational therapist, Ally uniquely understands what it’s like to work toward regaining physical strength and independence—she was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident at 17.

“As someone who has had to adapt to new physical circumstances, I know we can’t take our ability to do everyday tasks like getting dressed or leaving the house for granted,” says Ally. “Sometimes, all it takes for someone to regain their independence are a few in-home modifications combined with consistent occupational therapy.”

PACE programs are the ideal option for keeping seniors independent and safe in their own homes. PACE is a wholly integrated, coordinated, person-centered, provider-led, capitated and fully risk-bearing model of care. It is the place for older adults, for their families and for talented professionals who provide them the best of care. 

More San Diego seniors are eligible for PACE than ever before, thanks to changes in Medi-Cal eligibility this year—a much needed adjustment, given the fact that 1 in 4 Californians will be 65 or older by 2030. PACE programs are gaining in popularity nationwide, as costs continue to rise and caregivers of seniors face more stressors than ever before.

PACE programs bring relief to  seniors and their adult children and caregivers through high-quality, holistic services that help older adults stay at home, where they want to be.  

Rena Smith is the executive director of Gary & Mary West PACE in San Marcos. She is a resident of Oceanside.