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Episode 46: Jim Shulman

Vice Mayor Nashville and ED of Commission on Aging Jim Shulman Discusses Seniors and Affordable Housing

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast- the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. We are in downtown Nashville in the Andrew Jackson Building with our esteemed guest Jim Shulman. He’s the executive director of Commission on Aging and disability and also the vice mayor of Nashville. Welcome, Jim.

Jim: Thank you for having me. I appreciate y’all coming to my office and downtown Nashville. It’s a real pleasure to be on the show.

Josh: This is exciting for me. I’ve known Jim now for several years. We’ve served on a board together and I’ll be honest with you Jim, so, I’ve always been fascinated with the reach and the influence you have in the senior living- I know we’re going to talk about that. But also, serving on some of the boards you serve on I serve on, they can be kind of dry. So, I’ve always enjoyed the humor that you bring and can bring some relaxation to those meetings. You’re just genuine and I know our listeners will hear that come through today as you talk about your story and what you do.

You guys, Lucas and my team as we were coming up through security in this building, your team here is first class. We were met by Cindy who’s helped us and it speaks a lot. She told us the years that she’s worked for you and she was talking very well about you and how much she loved to work for you.

So, I wanted you to know that because I know sometimes you don’t get to hear those kinds of things. That was really specialand said a lot about you.

Lucas: And we were greeted with sweets.

Josh: Exactly. Like butter and sugar and brownies. Yeah, it was amazing. So, thank you for the warm welcome here in Nashville. And it’s cold. So, that’s what we needed, right?

Lucas: We’re in a happy place.

Jim: We actually didn’t know that you were coming. Just kidding.

Josh: If only they would have none.

Lucas: Well, let’s get out of here. Let’s do this quick before they find out.

Josh: Yeah, exactly. So, we’ve got a lot of cool things to talk about. As I was sharing with you Jim, Lucas and I have been blessed to have a growing audience this year with Bridge the Gap podcast. It’s a very diverse group all over the country. We’ve even got some international listeners.

So, today is really unique because we can get a lens into what is happening in aging services in the state of Tennessee. You’re the best person to be talking about those issues. So, maybe you could wrap a little context around your office, what you guys do here in the state of Tennessee- kind of what your focus is.

Jim: Sure. So, we do all kinds of different things- everything from senior nutrition to an options program, which is designed for people who aren’t on Medicaid who are trying to get a limited amount of personal care services- home maker, personal care, in-home services like that. We also have the SHIP program located up here- SHIP meaning State Health Insurance Assistance Program. That program is designed to assist people with Medicare questions. Right now we’re towards the end of open enrollment for coverage. It ends on Dec. 7.

We have people up here who help individuals all across the state of Tennessee with questions about Medicare. Particularly, right now, they have questions about their drug coverage. They can call and get one-on-one counseling. We don’t sell policies. That program gets funded by the federal program- the SHIP program- so what they’re trying to do is to make sure you’re on the right program. They actually run computer systems and make sure that you’re actually on the right program. So, it’s a great program.

Josh: So, to give people perspective- is there an agency like yours in every state that’s federally supported?

Jim: There is a statement on aging, which is what this agency is. When the federal government passed the Older Americans Act, which was in 1963, they wanted every state to have a state unit on aging, which is where they would give the money from the Older Americans Act. They would give it to a responsible agency within each of the 50 states. We are that agency.

Now, the SHIP program varies where you may find it within other states, but the SHIP program here is located within our agency.

Josh: Wow. So, in the state of Tennessee, obviously, it’s a wide state East to West. You guys are central here. So, how do you- are there touchpoints for the different regions or different districts? How do you separate that- how do people contact you guys?

Jim: There are nine area agencies across the state of Tennessee, going all the way across from Memphis to Mountain City. We have nine area agencies and a lot of people know where to find them. They’re usually in the development districts in those regions. Those agencies are responsible for working with us. We contract with them. We provide them with money from the Older Americans Act and from the state. They go out and provide direct services or they contract with entities to provide direct services to people. That’s how you find us!

Josh: That’s fascinating. So, would you say that, you know, I’m an operator, I run the senior living communities (and) manage those- are most of the people that are contacting you, are those folks like us that are like the administrators running communities that have an influence and a population that they’re caring for? Is it more consumer driven on the resident or those families that are helping their loved ones navigate the health system and try to answer these tough questions and get resources? Who are you primarily serving?

Jim: It’s primarily consumers that are looking for us. It’s individuals that might be in a nursing home or an assisted living facility that have a question or we actually have an ombudsman program here that advocates on behalf of folks in long term care facilities.

It may be an individual who is calling with a parent that is starting to show signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. It could be an individual that is just lost in the system and is trying desperately to figure out what resources are available. Or, as I said before, it’s somebody who is on Medicare and is just completely lost in that program. They know what they’ve got in terms of the program, in terms of the insurance they have, but a specific question and just not know what’s covered. So, they’ll call up here asking for help.

Josh: That’s fascinating. So, give us a little bit of- from your perspective- the state of the state of Tennessee as it relates to aging services. You know, where do we stack up among other states? What are our issues? If I was to ask you, what’s keeping you up at night as it relates to aging services? What are the issues?

Jim: I think the biggest issue is that the state in terms of quality in life, in terms of the overall senior- are they better here than in other states? What do we have? I think our rankings show that we’re pretty far down, which is unfortunate.

The one thing I’ll say is that when the first senior rankings came out about six years, we were like 43rd or 44th. I got really upset and I ended up calling the state of Minnesota because they were first. They said, ‘look at your other rankings.’ So, people who are 25 to 65, we usually rank about 43rd or 44th there too. So, it’s not like you’re getting 65 here in Tennessee and all the sudden getting in worst shape. It just doesn’t work that way.

What we’re doing is, we started immediately focusing on the rank. If we’re 43rd or 44th, obviously that means that we’re doing good things in some areas and not doing very well in others. So, after studying those rankings, what we did was we went back and said where do we focus to move that needle.

It’s hard to move the needle. It really is difficult with some of the habits that we have in Tennessee. For example, our senior dental rankings are very, very low. We rank right at the bottom in terms of teeth extractions and just poor overall senior dental care. So, what we did is we went back and then we looked for programs that actually deal with that.

I think the idea is rankings are low, but the idea is to focus our programs in areas where we need to go.

Josh: I may have- I’m not sure if I misunderstood or not- but it sounds like there’s obviously a correlation with just an unhealthy lifestyle basically in Tennessee, right?

Jim: Well, again, so that call to Minnesota was real eye-opening. I’m talking to the executive director of the statement on aging in Minnesota and I’m going like, you do the same programs that we do. How come our rankings are so low? That’s when she said, look at your other rankings. She said, Tennessee smokes a lot. (There’s) not good and healthy behaviors in some areas. Those things develop early on and they impact you all the way through your life, including when you turn 65.

Josh: Wow, so interesting. Is there any initiatives in place? It sounds like, you know, across the sector, across government agencies, some initiatives and things really start to try to move the needle much earlier before it gets to the aging level.

Jim: Yeah, so again, the Department of Health does a lot of work to better those rankings for younger people. Healthier Tennessee, which is a program in the governor’s office does the same thing, and we pick them up when they get 65 or older.

It’s never too late to start exercising. It’s never too late to pick up healthy habits. It would be easier, I think, for our rankings if people were healthier moving into that older age category. We don’t stop. We’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to try to improve people’s quality of life all the way through.

Josh: Sure. So, switch gears a little bit. I was talking with Lucas on the way up here a little bit about some of the things. I don’t want to butcher this, but there was basically a huge sum of money that came out of a court case and then your office was really tasked with- I don’t want to use an inappropriate term- basically dispersing that money into appropriate programs relating to aging services and things like that. Could you talk a little bit about that- where that money is coming from? Where it’s going to?

Jim: So, it came from the Chancery Program of Davidson County. It was two cases that were settled in that Chancery court. There was $40 million that was to be distributed across the state. We got $36 million of it. It didn’t come to us, it went to us as an administrator.

There were four specific areas that we were supposed to cover- senior dental being one, like we talked about; senior legal assistance which doesn’t get a lot of help in terms of financial or otherwise; senior transportation which is a big issue for seniors because they have to transport to doctors or to grocery stores or wherever; and senior affordable housing, which I think you’re interested in.

Josh: Yes, absolutely.

Jim: So, the court took the money, they took the $40 million and $5 million immediately went out across the state for very small projects like buying a van or buying some equipment to help in terms of the kitchen and things like that. The rest of it was held in trust until we could come up with a grant proposal or process where people could bid on those processes in those four different areas.

It took about two years to do all this work. We had 30- I believe 38 proposals that came in on those four different areas. A number of them bid on the senior housing aspect. We had everybody talking about either building a new residential facility or coming up with home modifications. In the end, we picked a group that would do home modifications across the state. That was one of the requirements that it had to be in East, Middle and West Tennessee.

Habitat of Humanity of Memphis was the lead group. They partner with a number of Habitat for Humanity entities across the state. In the end, what their proposal was was to take about $14 million of that money and retrofit or home-modify about 1,400 homes for seniors.

There was an extra million that put into Westminister, which is a program in Nashville, and they do the same type of thing, except on a smaller basis. Again, East, Middle and West- so, you can’t do every county, but you can do a number of counties. So, we’re going to hit a number of counties with those programs and the idea is if we can change a bathroom out, a railing out in the front, put a ramp up, then people have a better chance of staying in their homes, which is most people want to stay in their homes as they get older. This allows them to do just that.

Josh: Awesome. So, where does that program, where does it stand now? Have construction projects and renovations and these rehabs and adjustments to help, has it started happening?

Jim: We went through the entire process with the court. The court was the ultimate approval of all the processes and the contracts that went out. Every one of these contracts was signed in the middle of April. So, every one of these areas in terms of these four areas- dental and transportation and legal and affordable housing- it all started in April.

Some had longer periods to ramp up. So, Habitat and that housing had a longer period of time to get their stuff together. They have now started in terms of the houses that they are actually modifying. We talked to them. They’ve been working on it about a month or so to get these things up and moving. I think they’re getting close to 100 at this point and they have a ways to go, but they’ve started up and they’ve gotten their affiliates on board to be ready to go.

Josh: So, switch it up here a little bit. So, you’re vice mayor of Nashville, congratulations on that. How many weeks in are we or months in?

Jim: We’re in about nine weeks, at this point.

Josh: So, just getting used to this new responsibility, which is a huge one. So, when we talk about affordable housing and now you being here in Davidson County, how’s Davidson County doing with that? There’s so much going on in Nashville. I’m over here every couple weeks from Knoxville- there’s always a new skyscraper or something and there’s new housing going up but it’s not necessarily affordable housing. There’s this migration in and there’s this migration out- how is affordable housing shaping up here in Nashville?

Jim: We have a real situation here in Nashville regarding affordable housing. It’s been, ever since Nashville got the name of the ‘it city,’ all the sudden you have gentrification going on, you have people buying home all throughout the city, tearing them down and building two or three on those locations. The people who were there are being pushed further and further out of the city.

From a senior standpoint, the same thing. So, if they were either in their homes and they’re sort of feeling like they’ve got to move. A lot of times they’ll sale their house for a good sum of money but they can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood- they get pushed out.

The same folks that are living in houses or apartments or whatever and renting, all the sudden people go, ‘I don’t want to rent this anymore, I’d rather sell it because I can make more money doing that or I can charge higher rents’ so people are getting pushed out. It’s a real serious problem here in Nashville.

Josh: Sure. So, obviously, it’s very easy to talk about the challenges, the obstacles, all the things that our industry is facing- the housing challenges, affordability. With that, it always seems like there’s this underlying- what’s the opportunity?

How can we bring about positive change? How can we create solutions? So, for our audience out there that may be senior housing operators, developers- do you know (or) have ideas or are there programs on the horizon? Is there special funding? Is there incentives or things like that that you’re aware of that maybe could be uncovered to where people who are wanting to be creative, to find solutions, there might be something on their horizon?

Jim: So, I’ll start further back and get to what the answer is. So, there was so many issues regarding just being an older Tennessean that we were trying to deal with. When I first got here, which was about six years ago- making sure our programs were strong, that we were feeding as many people as possible, that we were doing all things that we were required to do- seniors affordable housing was not necessarily on that issue. It just wasn’t bubbling up to the surface even though we knew it was there, we just weren’t paying as much attention to it as we should have.

So, when the opportunity came with the senior trust to actually talk about issues with an entity- at that point it was the court that actually had money- and they reached out to us and said, ‘you know, what do you think? What would you do?’ When we went to the court, we were there because we were willing to help. We didn’t want the money and we weren’t going to take any of the money. We were to kind of help advise the court and say this is what we think we should do with it or what we would advise the court to do with it.

At that point, that was the perfect opportunity to talk about senior affordable housing. That’s why it became such an important issue at the time. Since then, besides just the money going through this process, we have gotten together with THDA- Tennessee Housing Development Agency- and a host of other agencies that are sort of combined or connected with senior affordable housing. We have a series of ongoing meetings where we’re continually trying to figure out ways to make it easier either for developers or individuals that are at home to be able to stay in their homes or for developers to do these things.

Josh: That’s awesome. So, tell our listeners, how would they connect to get involved? Is it just contacting you guys by email, a website? What’s the best way to get in touch, to be involved in that process?

Jim: If they’re interested in that, they could just email me. It’s jim.shulman@tn.gov. Tell us you’re interested. The hardest part of this whole thing is trying to find the resources. That’s why the Senior Trust grants were so beneficial because all the sudden we had all this money that we could use to actually go out there and say what can you do if we worked to put money on the table.

THDA has been wonderful in terms of helping us with kind of the rest of the picture. USDA- same thing from the federal government. But the biggest thing was actually trying to bring people together and just say, call we all just sit down and talk about it?

Nashville, it’s a little different- really expensive, people being pushed out, got to deal with the overall situation. But, I don’t think Nashville is the only entity in this situation, particularly when it comes to seniors affordable housing.

Josh: Sure.

Jim: So, the idea is that we need all the people together that we can get around the table.

Lucas: Yeah, I admire what you guys are working on. I’ve admired Josh’s appointment here with the state of Tennessee. It brings to mind one of the themes that we continually bring up on Bridge the Gap is the aspect of being the bridge. So, to Josh’s point earlier, people can email to get connected. But, what would you say, not only in that issue in particular, but maybe there’s some listeners out there who are in Tennessee and they’re saying, hey, I wasn’t aware of these issues that you guys are talking about. Would connecting through email with you be the appropriate way or are there other ways to get involved?

Jim: So, if they’re interested in senior affordable housing, probably through me. But, if they’re listening and they’re going like, you know, I know people who need help with senior nutrition. Or, I know people who have Medicare questions. So, the easiest thing to do is to reach out to their local area agency on aging and disability. If they don’t know how to find them, you can certainly find them on the website, on the phone, that type of thing.

But, if you’re lost and you just don’t know where to turn, they should call here. They should call the Commission on Aging and we’ll them to the right place.

Lucas: That’s wonderful. And then the ammunition would go out to all of our listeners in each state. If you feel called about the topics today, then there’s probably a resource in your own state that you can get connected to and we’re happy to shed light on that.

Jim: Yeah. It’s all called INA, which is information assistance. If you’ve got any questions, whether you’re a senior or you’re a family member, or you just need to know, reach out to that. That’s what we’re here for.

Lucas: That’s awesome. That’s great. Well and that’s what being a bridge is all about and that’s what the podcast platform is to inform and educate and influence all areas of seniors care and aging adults across the nation. And this has been a great episode and a great topic to speak of.

Jim, thank you so much for your hospitality here and your time. It’s very, very valuable. I’m a big Tennessee fan now through my friendship with Josh. I enjoy coming and hope and really advocate for a lot of our conferences to come to Nashville and Tennessee because it’s a great place to come and visit.

So, thank you again so much, and thank you for listening to Bridge the Gap.

Thank you to our supporting partners NHI, RCare, NRC Health, TSOLife, Erdman and Sherpa.

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Episode 46: Jim Shulman