He was a student at the University of South Florida who initially wanted to be a psychologist. Then, David Gamse said in a recent interview, his grandmother, a victim of nursing home abuse, died.
“I decided then that I wanted to devote my life to helping people stay well and able as long as possible,” Gamse said.
He got a master’s degree in gerontology. Coursework included seeing Tampa International Airport, Fla., through the eyes of an older adult — a reality check that highlighted hardships.
“The world is not a caring place for older adults,” he recalled, noting that while it has improved in ensuing decades, “Most of America has been built for the mythical 25-year-old user.”
He’s been trying to change that ever since.
Gamse, 69, will retire at the close of this year, after 30 years as CEO of the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. The nonprofit agency provides services and programs to support older adults and their families and helps them with connections to other resources.
“I’ve never met somebody who was just so completely devoted not just to the job but to older Americans,” said Natalie Cantor, past president of JCA.
Gamse is leaving JCA to join his wife of 49 years, Peg, in retirement. While he’ll continue to spoil his grandson, he’ll take his own advice to stay active and engaged probably in two ways: as a volunteer, likely in the field of providing services to people, and also in matters in his Frederick community, where the couple moved from Northern Virginia a few years ago.
“It was a traumatic move. It has taken a long time to recognize my car with Maryland license plates,” Gamse said, the good humor noted by colleagues showing through.o be sure, he said, he isn’t leaving JCA because all needs of older adults have been met. New challenges keep arising, like combating social isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic — while hearing people say that older and vulnerable Americans should just stay home.
Meanwhile, longstanding challenges, like battling age discrimination, much to his distress not only don’t fade away, but “have gotten worse during the pandemic.”
A recognizable face of advocacy and aid for older adults in Metropolitan Washington and beyond, Gamse is a Florida native who came to JCA from AARP. He has overseen a mix of creating, tweaking and expanding programs — capitalizing on partnerships with governments and other nonprofits — and spinning off and closing others.
“My passion has been in the design and delivery of human services,” he said, noting that JCA serves about 30,000 people a year.
As he looks at an issue, Gamse’s eye for detail stuns even those who’ve long collaborated with him.
“We were talking about providing seniors food during the pandemic,” recalled Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, who has worked with Gamse for 23 years. “He said, ‘If we are giving seniors [prepackaged] dinners, we have to make sure they fit in their little freezers.’ He is even thinking not just about the getting them the food, but the size of their freezers.”
Halber called Gamse “an outstanding professional — he is an outstanding person as well.”
Halber cited Gamse’s demeanor, knowledge and understanding of issues facing older Americans, plus relationships with other Jewish organizations and partnerships with government that reach the entire community. (Full disclosure: WJW partners with JCA on its Senior Resources Guide.)
Gamse said he tries to fill gaps in services, which has helped JCA grow, innovate and change to meet changing needs. He credited the 53-member staff, 1,300volunteers and 52 interns for their dedication to older adults and their families.
There’s no single JCA achievement to point to as best, he said; rather it is helping older adults — that’s anyone over 50 — age well and with dignity. That may be by showing them resources for aging in place or helping them remain socially engaged.
“The greatest joy and fulfillment for me personally comes not from looking at particular programs but looking at the ways we help people,” Gamse said. “When we help people choose a Medicare or a Medicaid program wisely and save them thousands of dollars in a year on prescription drugs, that is absolutely a feel good. When we help older adults find a job or get a job, that’s amazing, because our society now thinks that you can or should live a quarter to a third of your lifetime in retirement.”
One intergenerational program has volunteers mentoring students, while in another, youths help older adults update their computer skills. Others address transportation needs.
Senior Tech, in which students taught basic computer skills to older adults, was phased out as schools and governments took on the role. Replacing it: Career Tech, in which older adult job-seekers learn PowerPoint and related skills. “We found that was a gap … and looked to fill it,” Gamse said.
“We are the biggest and best provider of senior employment services in the metro D.C. area,” Gamse said. “Our 50+ Employment Expos, for example, are among the largest in the United States.”
The annual events in the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs have drawn 3,000 job-seekers — at least 10 times as many as when Gamse arrived at JCA — to events with resume-writing sessions, workshops, dozens of employers and exhibitors. (Due to the pandemic, a virtual mini-expo series is planned.)
The growth, Gamse said, indicates that older adults are seeking work and that there are local employers receptive to hiring them.
Hiring an older worker gives that person a paycheck, boosts his or her level of activity, provides structure to life, helps socially and emotionally while it benefits society, he said.Still, there are sobering realizations.
Only recently, Gamse made the most difficult decision of his tenure: JCA should close the Misler Center this year. Losing $500,000 a year, it became too costly to continue a medical adult day program that was unique in the region’s Jewish community.
“It was an iconic program, not just for JCA but for the Jewish community. It was serving the most vulnerable and the most often forgotten members of our community,” he said. Initially a partnership with the Hebrew Home, it was taken over by JCA.
The JCA created Kensington Clubs in recent years to serve people with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and there are other services in the Jewish communal network. That, Gamse said, “made it less awful to close, but it was still awful.”
Gamse’s long JCA tenure meant that he’s seen former staff, board members and volunteers become JCA clients.
He rails against age discrimination in its many incarnations, from in the workplace — ironically, JCA benefits from it, as older adults seek a welcoming place to work and volunteer — to conference rooms where they’re told about the need for younger participants, workers, donors and more; to talk of older adults being a burden, to their needs and value being ignored.
“It is sad to me that after all these years of working in the aging services field … we still cannot focus local, regional or national attention on the extreme and unmet needs of older adults,” Gamse said.
JCA has fought ageism for its 47-year existence, Gamse noted.
The pandemic has exacerbated age discrimination, he said, due to notions that older adults should stop working, stop volunteering and stay isolated at home while the world goes on.
He’s heartened by this, he said: While older adults now are reluctant to complain, “I think that will change as successive generations of complainers get old. … Life is complicated and it doesn’t get less complicated with age.”
As he prepares to leave JCA, he noted that it’s not everywhere that work comes with hugs and feeling good for helping older adults age well.
“My heart and soul is in this place,” Gamse said.
Advice for his successor
Gamse points to three pressing issues for any would-be successor, and helping older adults in general age well. JCA has a role in being a catalyst for others to provide for older Americans, he said.
1. “My own belief is where there are publicly available programs, we should not use Jewish philanthropic funds to duplicate them. Let’s use that public money first and use those philanthropic dollars for things that are truly gap filling,” Gamse said.
2. “Keep people employed as long as they want to be employed.” Value them as volunteers.
3. There’s a “need to advocate for more funding for older adults.” That holds for government, philanthropies, charitable and other dollars.
—Andrea F. Siegel