Council on Aging's Dennis Streets reflects on a lifetime spent thinking about aging

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PITTSBORO — The old adage about age being “an attitude” and not a number is something Dennis Streets learned early.

As a 9-year-old, Streets — now the executive director of the Chatham County Council on Aging — was already thinking about aging. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, he’d often spend time in his father’s medical office just to be around him, working as receptionist and even performing lab tests.

“My dad was in solo practice and many of his patients were older adults,” Streets recalled. “While a general practitioner, he was sort of a self-proclaimed geriatrician. I used to joke with him that he had the first senior center, since his patients would come to see him, bring their lunch, stay on after their appointment to play checkers or cards on his covered porch.”

At the time, Florida’s Pinellas County had the highest median age in the country. But it was also what he witnessed within his own family that helped shape the direction of Streets’ own career.

A cherished aunt cared for his ailing grandfather, who had worked from age 9 to his retirement at age 65 in Pennsylvania’s coal mines and later developed dementia. Later still, Streets’ own brother, David, left his job at a community college to take care of their mother and father, as well as the aunt who’d cared for their grandfather.

“And all in their homes,” Streets says. “They all died at home — avoiding placement in a facility.”

That lifelong awareness of, and attention to, the problems and challenges that come with aging are just the beginning of what drove Streets to learn about, study, and find the best practices to help people age with grace and dignity.

And now, he’s moving toward that transition himself: at the end of this month, Streets, 69, will retire from the COA, relinquishing the post he’s had since 2014 and ending a professional career marked by stellar leadership and accomplishment in public health and positions related to providing for the aging.

Streets’ tenure in Chatham County — the place he’s called home for much of that career — has been marked by a significant growth in the scope of service provided by the COA. His agency’s staff and volunteers typically provide more than 35,000 meals annually to Chatham residents through its two senior centers and the COA’s Meals of Wheels program. The COVID pandemic led to the closure of the centers — although they re-opened, renovation and an Omicron-prompted surge have paused some services again for now — but under normal operation the COA provides more than 25,000 hours of programming Chatham’s senior population. Those include exercise classes, specialized interest groups and clubs, social and recreational opportunities and caregiver support, among many others.

Both of the facilities have been certified by the state of N.C. as “Centers of Excellence,” and back in 2019, Chatham County was the recipient of the prestigious Ernest B. Messer Award — given to communities for excellence in the state addressing the needs of its elder citizens and one of the highest honors for a county’s commitment to its aging residents.

A multitude of other local, regional and state awards have also been bestowed upon the COA, and Streets himself has been recognized by the N.C. Coalition on Aging, the N.C. Senior Tar Heel Legislature, the N.C. Association on Aging, the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, and two White House Conferences on Aging — among others — for his work.

“Dennis’s exemplary work in the field of aging has spanned decades, and we are so grateful for his leadership, passion, and commitment to serving Chatham County’s seniors and their families throughout the past eight years,” said Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dennis and the Council on Aging staff and volunteers made critical adaptations to ensure that the needs of our most vulnerable residents continue to be met, and his impact on our entire community undoubtedly will last for many years.”

No coursework at UNC

All that had its roots in Chatham County. Streets’ first exposure to his future home was moving here — he lived “in a trailer in the woods” his first two years — as an undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. His passion was in aging services and gerontology, but there was no related coursework at the time at UNC. Even in grad school, there was but a single sociology course related to the topic in the School of Public Health.

“And so I put a meeting notice in The Daily Tar Heel, the school newspaper, that if anybody was interested in aging, bring your lunch,” he said. “And we had five people on that first Wednesday. A year later, we had over 100 people from 20-some different disciplines. And those are still some of my best friends in the field today.”

Streets performed social research in the role of parish ministries to older people, began promoting the rights of nursing home residents, and attending meetings of hospice organizations to learn even more.

“It was just my passion,” he said, “and I’ve never regretted it.”

After his formal education ended, he worked for the Triangle J Council of Governments and the N.C. Division of Social Services before becoming the director of a massive long-term care facility in Guilford County. From there, Streets became coordinator of the UNC School of Social Work’s Center for Aging Research, and then left for what became an 18-year career as director of the Division of Aging and Adult Services for the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services — a position that would have served as the capstone for just about anyone’s career in the field.

Streets, though, wasn’t finished yet.

“I retired at the end of April of 2014,” he said. “I tell people that I had about two hours of retirement because I started the next morning as the director of the Chatham County Council on Aging.”

He’s overseen the COA’s operation ever since.

An aging demographic

The Council is technically a nonprofit agency which traces its roots in Chatham County back to 1974. Now, going on a half century later, its work is particularly relevant here: close to a third of Chatham’s population is 60 years old or older. Chatham’s per capita number of senior citizens is among the highest in North Carolina, and that ration will only increase.

“It’s projected that by 2039, more than four and 10 of our residents here in Chatham will be over 60,” Streets said.

The nationwide demographic shift toward older — the fastest-growing segment of the population is 85 and above — means the Council’s work will continue to increase in relevance.

“So I really think we have to keep in mind the importance of this large mass of those of us who are older — that we also have talents, we have skills, we have assets, we have knowledge, we have ability to impact this community. And there’s plenty of examples of already of how that’s happening. But we also have to recognize and appreciate, and enable the Council, to be an even be greater resource, a natural resource for Chatham County.”

Streets says the COA’s principal mission today, as it has been since it was founded, is “to try to keep our older population healthy, safe and independent as much as possible in the community in their homes.”

The county pays Streets’ salary, but the COA’s programming is funded in numerous other ways — the United Way of Chatham County and other organizations and grants. When he leaves at the end of the month, Lacee Monte, the Council’s deputy director/finance officer, will serve as interim director until Streets’ replacement is hired; his position will be posted publicly soon.

He’ll be missed.

“As Chatham County’s older population continues to grow, it is vital that we continue to address the needs of our seniors, and Dennis has been instrumental in his forward-thinking vision with the development of the Chatham County Aging Plan,” said Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Karen Howard. “Dennis has left a long-lasting mark on so many of us. He will be sorely missed not only for his accomplishments — but for the kind, generous, and charming person that he is.”

His retirement comes just a month after the retirement of Susan Hardy, who led the COA’s caregiving efforts for many years and helped expand those offerings to Chatham residents. He plans to stay active: Streets’ wife, Dawn, who teaches at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, will continue to work for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Streets says his personal list of goals and to-dos is “quite long,” including possibly writing a screenplay.

And his interest in the field won’t retire with him. Caregiving will continue to be a focus after he leaves — as it should for everyone, he said.

“I remember Rosalyn Carter [former President Jimmy Carter’s wife] mentioning that there’s four categories of people: you’ve been a caregiver, you are a caregiver, you’re going to be a caregiver, or you’re going to need caregiving,” he said. “It’s one of those four things or some combination. So it’s in all of our best interest.”

Streets says the agency is in “a great spot” entering 2022, despite the pandemic and his and Hardy’s retirements, because the staff believes and is committed to its mission every day — and has a group of dedicated volunteers, great support from its board and county government.

“I’m not naive enough not to know that every day is a challenge, because again, the service needs to continue to grow,” he said. “But I’m feeling good about where we are.”

And when he looks back, Streets says he’s most proud of the fact that the Council on Aging is a part of such a collaborative community.

“I really value, and we all do at the Council, the partnerships that we have,” he said. “I couldn’t list all the agencies, but you know, we work so closely with the [Chatham County] Public Health Department and Social Services and Emergency Management ... parks and recreation, the cooperative extension services, the libraries, Chatham Hospital … I could go down the list.

“One thing I’ve said about my years in working this field is there will never be enough public funds to help us meet the needs. There will never be enough that one agency can do. It really does take a team — not just within the agency, but within the community. It takes all of us to really make the kind of difference for our seniors that they deserve.”

To hear the full interview with Dennis Streets, find the episode on the News + Record’s podcast, “The Chatcast.” It’s posted on the newspaper’s social media platforms and available through all podcast apps. Dennis Streets will be recognized with a “going away” event at 3 p.m. on Jan. 28, to be held virtually. For more information, go to chathamcouncilonaging.org.

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