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2017-07-12 / Featured / Front Page

For 10 years, Debbie Leidheiser has been the county's caretaker

BY ANNE DALTON CONTRIBUTING WRITER


Debbie Leidheiser, pictured here during a recent music class at the Lifelong Learning Institute, retires as the county’s senior advocate at the end of August. 
ASH DANIEL Debbie Leidheiser, pictured here during a recent music class at the Lifelong Learning Institute, retires as the county’s senior advocate at the end of August. ASH DANIEL The phone rang; a woman needed help. She couldn’t see over the steering wheel. Shortly after getting into an accident and totaling her car, the Chesterfield County senior was struggling to find a replacement vehicle that suited her short stature.

Debbie Leidheiser, senior advocate for the county, remembers fielding the call a few years back. “She’d been to several car dealers trying to find a car that was reliable for an older, shorter adult, and she wasn’t getting the help she needed,” Leidheiser recalls. “She was frustrated.”

Leidheiser did some research online, found 10 cars that would possibly accommodate the woman’s height and sent her a list, complete with photos. “It was not typically [the kind of call] we get, but I was intrigued,” Leidheiser says. “It was a neat thing to be able to help someone in that situation.”

Leidheiser has built a career on helping others cope with new and discomfiting situations. Now, after 10 years spent working on behalf of older adults in Chesterfield, she’s preparing to retire at the end of August. The soft-spoken Leidheiser has been a staunch ally for county seniors, listening to them and helping develop government programs to meet their needs. She’s also spent considerable time answering the phone, assisting seniors with everything from car shopping to caring for grandchildren.

“I’m excited, but very sad, too,” Leidheiser says, reflecting on the upcoming change. “I love what I do. Still, [there are] so many things I want to get done and want to do. There is never enough time. I hate leaving, but the time is right for me and my family.”

Sarah Snead, deputy county administrator, says Leidheiser has been a tireless advocate for seniors, and her work has helped raise awareness of senior-related issues through the county government.

“Chesterfield County has been extremely fortunate to have Debbie Leidheiser as the Senior Advocate these past years,” Snead says via email. “As Senior Advocate, she has prompted the county to be a leader in services for the aging population, including grandparent support groups, transportation resources and numerous other programs and projects, consistently showing her heart for the community.”

Chesterfield County’s Committee on the Future created the Office of the Senior Advocate in 2003 to address the needs of county seniors. Leidheiser stepped into the position in 2007, bringing with her relevant knowledge and experience. In her previous job as director of foundation and public relations at Brandermill Woods Retirement Community, Leidheiser developed the Lifelong Learning Institute to help local seniors who were looking for social outlets and opportunities to learn.

Considered a one-stop shop for senior information, the Office of the Senior Advocate covers most bases: legal issues, family relationships, health issues and social and educational groups. Chesterfield was the first locale in the state to have a senior advocate position, and is one of only three areas in the commonwealth that currently feature such a program, having been joined by Richmond and Henrico.

According to a January 2017 Chesterfield County Planning Department report, the number of residents over the age of 60 – more than 64,000 in 2015 – is projected to top 78,000 in 2020, and the population 65 and older is projected to grow faster than any other age group. That adds up to a lot of people for the department to serve.

The staff at the office works hard to spread the word about the programs it offers. “This is a great department, and a dedicated staff. They are here because they love it and the population,” says Leidheiser, who is the only full-time employee in the department. The staff includes two 20-hour employees, one six-hour employee, and a lot of volunteers – 49 at the moment. In 2016, the office offered 193 programs to the community with an attendance of 5,735 participants, with those 49 volunteers providing 2,595 hours of service to the county. But they can always use more help, Leidheiser says, adding, “There’s a place for everyone.”

In 2016, the department responded to 2,800 requests for services. Calls to the office increase after a holiday, when family members have been to visit older relatives. “That’s when things become more obvious,” Leidheiser says. “Spoiled food in the refrigerator, a disconnected utility, less than well-kept living areas are all signs to watch for. They are alerts.”

Families reach out to the Senior Advocate’s Office when they don’t know where to start. A good place, according to Leidheiser, is with the 70-plus page Senior Resource Guide the department produces, available online or in print.

“The department isn’t the answer to everything, but [it’s] a great resource for questions people have about housing, transportation, caregiving, financial assistance. We don’t provide financial assistance, but we can point someone in the right direction if they need help with heating or cooling costs, for example,” Leidheiser says.

According to Leidheiser, sometimes what people really need is just someone to listen. “It’s not unusual to have a 30-minute conversation with someone who really doesn’t know what they are looking for,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s a caring ear. They talk and come to figure it out for themselves.”

The services provided by the department have expanded over the years. In 2009, Leidheiser answered a specific need by creating a monthly support group, Kinship Connections, for senior extended family members caring for children. The Caregiver Connection support group followed in 2014. Both provide regular opportunities for seniors to meet and exchange ideas, often providing participants with the opportunity to help each other.

Judy Jones, principal recreation specialist for 50+ Active Lifestyles with Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, has worked with Leidheiser since she became Senior Advocate, and says they often combine their efforts. “We have a lot of partnerships,” Jones says, including planning for Senior Day, the Council on Aging and the Age Wave Committee. About Leidheiser, she adds, “She is very good at her job. She is organized and committed to the older adult population. The Senior Advocate’s Office has grown under Debbie. People are recognizing that it is a good resource.”

One program that continues to have an impact is the office’s Telephone Reassurance program, in which volunteers call and check in on area seniors, as many as 30 a week from Monday through Thursday, to make sure everything is okay, or just to offer a friendly hello. Leidheiser recalls one client in particular, whom they called regularly: “He was the sole caregiver for his very ill wife, and he just needed to talk to someone outside of the situation.”

In light of the age wave the county is facing, a continuing focus for the department is affordable housing and the aging in place of county seniors. “The goal is to keep people where they are,” Leidheiser says. “People age much better when they know where they are, [and can stay] where they are comfortable.”

Leidheiser is proud of the success of the advocate’s office, and after working to help seniors and families in Chesterfield, she looks forward to spending more time with her own family. As she plans her departure, she is excited about what lies ahead for the office. “Someone can come in here with new ideas,” she says. “I think it’ll be really good. It’s beneficial and healthy for the department, a new viewpoint. You need that after a while.” ¦

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