Green House Blog

Who Will Be the Next Champion of Eldercare Reform? Celebrating the Legacy of Claude J. Pepper

In the latest episode of The Green House Project’s “Elevate Eldercare” podcast, Senior Director Susan Ryan sat down with Director of Communications and Marketing Alex Spanko to discuss the life and legacy of perhaps one of the most impactful public servants America has ever had – Sen. Claude J. Pepper, whose journey from an impoverished town in Alabama to Harvard Law School to Congress culminated with the reception of a National Medal of Freedom from President Bush prior to his retirement and passing.

Pepper’s life and career throughout the twentieth century sought to empower not just elders but everyone to live a life of dignity. He championed a staggering number of impactful reforms and regulations, from introducing equal-pay legislation for women to fighting to protect Social Security benefits. Through research as well as clips from a previous interview with Dr. Larry Polivka, who was the director of the Claude Pepper Center in Florida until his recent retirement, this episode aimed to examine one main question: first Claude Pepper – now who? I took away three lessons in leadership from this discussion.

  • The courage to be provocative

Claude Pepper was born prior to World War I and, as such, saw a government capable of complete transformation through the passage of the New Deal and Great Society programs. Today, it’s hard for any of us to fathom lawmakers working across the political aisle to push for radical structural change – in fact, it’s not bold to assume that in today’s climate, something like the New Deal would not pass, although many of us can’t imagine a country that doesn’t support Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps.

While Pepper might have had it easy, therefore, to push for the passage of an enormous number of social programs, it’s also hard to see how any change can be enacted today without a similar push. In today’s political world, it will take guts, decisiveness, and a stubborn streak to push past the status quo.

  • The gift of pragmatic idealism

Some of the greatest leaders in history – Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. – are now remembered for their relentlessly inspiring idealism. But if idealism is the fire, then pragmatism is the heat that emanates from it. Without a dose of practicality, ideas remain ideas. As mentioned in the podcast, pragmatism in the modern eldercare reform movement might even be a gift.

For example, the Boomer generation stopped a war in the 20th century, and routinely turn out to vote. To generate action, they can be, and are, a huge source of support for the eldercare reform movement. Similarly, there are fiscal reasons to reform eldercare that should be emphasized – chiefly, that we spend millions of dollars on a system that no one likes or wants to find themselves in. There must be a better way to not only be more cost-efficient, but also do better for each other. 

  • The vision to see what could be

As the podcast highlighted, we have a tendency to stop at “good enough.” When so many cogs in the machine of government are seemingly working against social movements, it’s hard to summon the willpower to push for more. Yet everyone in eldercare, and for that matter, healthcare, agrees that the system is broken. When will we do something about it? In my mind, the purpose of an ideal is like a compass, and it’s something that Pepper likely held on to for his life. Without direction, we could be going fast, but we’re also going nowhere.

The last point from the podcast I want to highlight is that of a coalition for change. Although history likes to celebrate its figures as heroes – and there is no doubt that Claude Pepper is one – the fact is that no one can go at it alone. To ask one person to carry the torch ignores the communities that changemakers continually rely on for support – and often, stand because of.

But I think this is a good thing – all over the country, little pockets of people and organizations have been gathering momentum by pushing for reforms in eldercare. When someone, or a group of people, takes it upon themselves to unite everyone, the movement for eldercare reform will quite literally be unstoppable.