Paula Basta has dedicated her more than four-decade career to advocating for the aging community in a variety of roles. Most recently, Gov. J.B. Pritzker named Basta the director of the Illinois Department on Aging.
"It is the honor of my life to be chosen for this post," said Basta. "I am thrilled, excited and energized to be working with the Governor because he cares deeply about the people of Illinois and works very hard and wants those of us in his cabinet to work hard with him. He has high expectations for how we do our work, especially to ensure that older Illinoisans are well taken care of. The face of aging is really growing much more diverse at a faster rate than anybody realizes and the Governor sees that this has to be taken seriously."
Basta said that her role is to highlight that growing older is a "wonderful thing" and to be positive about the process. She explained that the agency's goal is to ensure that older adults stay healthy, engaged with the world and living in their own homes for as long as possible.
One thing that is paramount for Basta and her team is to restore stability in their programs and networks after four years without a budget under then Gov. Bruce Rauner.
"I was really glad we were able to get into our budget some programs around social isolation and training in terms of dementia care," said Basta. "I also want to highlight that we are now including LGBT identity questions in all of our intake and service treatment forms. Now, when a person calls the senior help line they will be asked how they identify. This will help us be sensitive to this community as they access mainstream services."
Basta's journey began in Cleveland, Ohio where she grew up before heading to the University of Dayton to get a degree in social work. She moved to Chicago to work for the Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly in 1979 and has been here ever since.
"I felt I was always comfortable working with older adults," said Basta. "My grandmother lived with us while I was growing up and that taught me a lot about the aging community. I have taken this with me throughout my career."
A short while after arriving in Chicago, Basta got her master's of divinity degree in theology from McCormick Theological Seminary. She explained that as a lesbian Roman Catholic woman she knew she was never going to be ordained in the Catholic Church but that did not stop her from wanting this master's degree. Being a student at McCormick showed her that she was not supposed to be ordained, but instead her calling was the social service system.
Before this most recent role; Basta was the Chicago Housing Authority Senior Services and Health Initiatives director and Chicago Department of Family and Support Services- Senior Services regional director. She also worked on behalf of the aging population at a variety of non-profits for the first 20 years of her career.
"Working for the city and running the largest and busiest senior center and most recently at the CHA managing 54 senior buildings and 10,000 seniors, and transitioning to the state has been really wonderful," said Basta.
Basta explained that she is on the road a lot more visiting the state's 13 Area Agencies on Aging that are funded through the Older American's Act monies, senior centers and adult daycare centers in urban, suburban and rural areas to talk to them about their needs.
In terms of the issues facing LGBT older adults in Illinois, Basta said the biggest hurdle is them being able to access services like getting a homemaker, meals on wheels and/or going to their local senior center since some people might be anti-LGBT.
"They face some barriers in receiving social support and with healthcare issues because LGBT seniors do not feel comfortable coming out to their doctors or other healthcare professionals since they grew up in an era where they could be arrested or looked at as having a sickness," said Basta. "It is incredible to see the trajectory since Stonewall 50 years ago to where we are today, but there is still so much work to do."
On June 12 SAGE, the world's oldest and largest LGBT older adults focused non-profit, bestowed Basta with its Pioneer Award for her "dedicated leadership and commitment to LGBT aging issues."
"I have been involved with the Chicago Network for LGBT Aging for almost 20 years, a member of the American Society on Aging and chairperson for the LGBT Aging Issues Network which is a huge constituent group of the American Society on Aging," said Basta. "SAGE has always been an important partner in our work so to have them honor me was very humbling and meant so very much to me."
Basta was also inducted into Chicago' LGBT Hall of Fame in 2009 and has served on the boards of Equality Illinois, TPAN and the Windy City Performing Arts. She is currently involved with the Center for Law and Social Work and is a Loyola University Water Tower Campus School of Social Work part-time adjunct professor.
When Basta is not working; she can be found playing "very bad" golf, spending time with her wife Terri Worman ( whom she has been with for 18 years ) going to the movies and out to eat and at her book club gatherings.
"Many times I am the last one to finish the book but that is okay," said Basta.
See www2.illinois.gov/aging/Pages/default.aspx or contact Basta at firstname.lastname@example.org .