John O’Neill is retiring after 38 years as Executive Director of Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES) in October.
Asked about his tenure at SCES, O’Neill listed a legacy of innovation and helping people live in the setting of their choice as his proudest achievements.
“We had a number of firsts in the state, but the thing I’m most happy about is that we have a culture that prioritizes helping older people have what they want for themselves,” said O’Neill.
Like many recent alumni, John O’Neill wasn’t certain what would come next, when he graduated from Boston College law school in 1978.
Then in his early 30s, O’Neill had already become a leader in the emerging field of community-based services for older adults. But he wanted more options and so went to law school and earned a full-time semester-long placement with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Priority Prosecution Unit.
Looking back at that crossroads on the eve of retirement, O’Neill said his faith and values were important factors in returning to human services– as director of Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES)– shortly after graduating.
“I realized that I needed to be involved with something that’s consistent with my values,” said O’Neill. “I do believe that we’re all connected, and that to help somebody is one of the best things you can do.”
A Malden native, O’Neill launched his career in human services at Malden Action Home Care, a local non-profit that was part of a government policy groundswell toward providing resources that help older adults age in place. O’Neill was on the front lines of that movement, helping to build regional support that allowed the organization to expand its service area into neighboring communities and rebrand as Mystic Valley Elder Services (MVES) in 1975.
O’Neill was the first acting director of MVES, and gave the agency its name, before moving on to law school. MVES Director Dan O’Leary has known O’Neill since 1980, and described him as somebody extremely dedicated to helping others.
“John is a remarkably consistent guy and by that I mean he’s always mission focused,” said O’Leary. “He’s always thinking about what we should be doing as agencies to meet our mission.”
O’Leary also praised O’Neill’s advocacy, noting his role in convincing former Somerville State Senator Charlie Shannon to champion a proposal that became known as the Community Choices Program. Enacted in 2006, the program provides increased services for elders at risk of needing a nursing home placement, and O’Leary said it’s a primary reason MassHealth is purchasing 37% fewer nursing home days than it was 15 years ago.
“That program has been a godsend for helping people with significant needs to stay in the community, and John was really one of the architects of getting it passed,” said O’Leary.
Focusing on the Main Thing
SCES was founded in 1972, and offered only a handful of Home Care and Nutrition services when O’Neill came onboard seven years later. Fast forward to 2017, and the agency offers more than 35 programs, assisting with a wide range of advice, health, and wellness needs.
Asked about that expansion, O’Neill said his thought process typically starts with identifying an unmet need, then figuring out how to fill that gap, followed by how to pay for it. A number of programs- such as the Aging Information Center- are free and open to the general public. Other programs (such as Medical Advocates and Medical Escorts) lose money in many years, but O’Neill said they are important because they fill a critical unmet need.
“One of the things I’ve always tried to examine the agency by- in my own mind- was if the state gave all of our funding to someone else, would anyone notice the difference?” said O’Neill. “To me, that’s the test of if you’re part of the community in a special way, or if you are just another business.”
Mass Home Care, which represents a statewide network of non-profit community-based services providers, is another project O’Neill helped launch. He was one of the original three incorporators of the organization, which was formed with the goal of providing advocacy and a statewide clearinghouse on elder issues, explained Mass Home Care director Al Norman.
Norman also credited O’Neill with being a key player on more recent innovations, such as a hospital-to-home partnership with local medical providers that was one of the best in the country at reducing unnecessary re-admissions.
“When we look for innovation, SCES under John was one of the places where we’d start,” said Norman. ” I think what I’ll miss most about John is that he’s a visionary thinker with a lot of history and one of the better understandings of community long-term care in the state.”
Liz Aguilo first met O’Neill in ’82, when she joined SCES as a caseworker after graduate school. Now President of the SCES Board, she’s led a search for the agency’s next director, and credited O’Neill with providing valuable perspective to that process.
“The agency has really changed a lot over his time at SCES, and he’s been really clear with us that our charge is to find somebody who can look forward and bring the agency ahead,” said Aguilo.
“He’s really cares about people aging with dignity, at home,” she added. “I really wish him well on the next chapter.”
As for O’Neill, he’s looking forward to more daytrips with his wife, more time with his 94-year-old mother in Malden, more time for his four grandchildren. He’s also planning a few other ways to keep busy.
“I plan on reading a ton of books, joining an adult choral group, probably some volunteer work—and having more time for prayer and meditation,” said O’Neill. “I also feel like I can be more of an advocate, once I’m retired, since I can speak as an individual without having to be mindful of the possible repercussions for the agency.”