The Sibley Senior Association will celebrate 30 years of outstanding service to the community with a celebration for Sibley staff, volunteers, and all the wonderful members who have contributed to SSA’s success. The Association was created and nurtured by key players at Sibley who turned a labor of love into the great program it is today.

When then-CEO Bob Sloan decided to greenlight the plan for a senior outreach program in 1986, he knew he was taking a risk. “We weren’t sure it would be successful,” he says. “Initially it wouldn’t pay for itself, but we knew it would be a value-added proposition for the community.” Sibley was even then serving a great many older adults and it was a way to bring more people in that community demographic closer to the hospital.  

The first person brought in was Letty Geiger as Director. “She really put it together and got it off the ground. I give her great credit.” he says. “You needed somebody who was committed, and Letty was enthusiastic, personable, dedicated, and organized. As SSA gained momentum, each program became more successful than the last. We were amazed at how the membership grew so quickly—500, then 1,000.” Today it has around 7,000 members.

Marie Newman, now part of Sibley’s Education & Training Department, played an instrumental role by coming up with a business plan for the new venture. Then a resident at Sibley, she was finishing her master’s in healthcare administration, and as one of her projects she wrote a plan for a senior outreach. “Robert Sloan and Barry Eisenberg, Assistant Administrative Director for Marketing and Planning, were the two willing to give it a try,” she says. “And it was Letty, Julie [Potter], and Marti [Bailey] who took it and ran with it.”

When Letty Geiger started as Director in 1987 she never guessed how big SSA would get—or how many lives it would touch. “I think Mr. Sloan was brave,” she says. “It was a loss leader, but he encouraged and nurtured it. We had an idea of what we were doing, but the concept was new and many times I wondered how we were going to manage it.” The department consisted of just Letty and her administrative assistant, Vicky Smink. “I didn’t even have a computer,” Letty recalls. “An article had run in the newsletter, so we already had 300 members."   

In 1990 Julie Potter, a social worker with Sibley, became SSA Coordinator and Letty moved up to the position of Director of Senior Services. By that time, SSA “was packing them in—we had 3,000 members,” Letty says. The two worked together to set up the Widowed Persons Outreach (WPO) support group. “Julie was the lead person,” Letty explains. “She said, ‘We’ve got to do this,’ and she was right. Our WPO has gone on longer than most other hospitals’ senior programs—most were cut—and I was always proud of Sibley for holding on to it.”

Julie and another staffer, working with Sibley’s social work and oncology departments, had already started a cancer support group. During her 21 years with SSA, Julie would add on more support groups, including Parkinson’s, the Walking Club, the Book Club, and Senior Cinema and Widowed Persons Outreach. Ideas often came from members and volunteers. “My philosophy was that if somebody had an idea I tried to do it,” Julie emphasizes. 

Marti Bailey became Director, Sibley Senior Association and Community Health, in August 2011. “I was already familiar with SSA because of my years working at Grand Oaks and referring people to Sibley,” she says. “I thought it was a very impressive palette from which people could choose events and classes, and I was excited about the opportunity to build on what I considered an extraordinary foundation.”

One of Marti’s initial goals was to ensure that the whole person—the physical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual aspects—is always considered. “As people age, particularly after retirement, they don’t get as many regular opportunities for intellectual and perhaps relationship stimulation as when they worked and had constant interactions,” she notes. “The reduction in personal interactions requires an effort to get a corresponding amount of personal change.”  Marti set in motion a number of innovations. An important addition is Club Memory, established for people with varying degrees of early-onset memory loss and their families and friends. As a place where people can socialize and share resources, it is notable for being one of the earliest groups developed specifically for those with early memory retrieval symptoms and focused on socializing. “The social element is critical,” Marti originally told the five couples who attended the first meeting in October 2011. “Club Memory is about living well with what we’ve got. We can live in a big way and have fun together.”  The group has expanded to serve over 500 people and in every ward in the District of Columbia and also has a group at the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview and managed by Andrea Nelson, R.N.

In order to accomplish changes of this magnitude, there were Sibley and grant funded additions to the staff, now including Honora Precourt, Sharon Sellers, Shruti Goel, and Marianne Panke along with several other important collaborators and volunteers.

Marti also started the Laugh Café, Final Affairs Project, the annual Sex and Aging conference and imported the Journey to Hope – DC from Johns Hopkins to support Alzheimer’s care partners in the National Capital Area.  The popular Aging on Your Terms conference began in 2012 with “It Takes a Village Movement,” which focused on communities that allow people to stay in their homes as they age. She has also continues partnerships with Grand Oaks Assisted Living and other organizations serving older adults to provide information and resources to SSA members.

As the size of the aging community increases, Marti anticipates new expectations and new challenges. She has no doubt that the SSA will be able to create exciting programs and events that will uphold its reputation as the premier outreach organization for older adults in the DC area.