Friday, March 26, 2010
Meet Council on Aging Director Debra Siriani
On Debra Siriani’s desk in Town Hall sits a small, green enameled turtle. It reminds her to take things slowly. “Slowly” is a challenge for Siriani, who is a woman overflowing with energy and ideas. She has been Director of the Carlisle Council on Aging (COA) for two months, replacing Kathy Mull, who resigned in December, and although she is “still learning Kathy’s system” in the office, she has already begun to create her own connections in town and her own definition of her new job.
Serving two generations of seniors
She classifies the senior population in Carlisle as “not one, but two generations now, those in their seventies and those in their nineties. To address the needs of each generation, we need to continue to forge good relationships with all the town departments, increase our efficiency, streamline ourselves so that we provide quality over quantity, support our volunteers and draw in more volunteers.”
She sees herself as a public servant and the COA program as a social service that exists on several levels, organized around the fitness and cultural needs of the younger seniors, the more advanced care needs of the older seniors, and the needs of those who are serving as caregivers. At all levels, she says, the program should support independent living and keeping seniors in their houses with “the services they deserve,” because “the town needs them to stay. They become a resource in their own right, a source of support for the rest of the town, teaching each other skills, tutoring others, creating a strong fabric of connections.”
How to accomplish this task? “We have to look at our programs to see what works and what needs to be expanded and improved. So far we have just done information referral for caregivers, for example. Caregivers might benefit from a support group where they could address the tough questions about caring for their elders. We might start one here in Carlisle or join with a group in Concord or Bedford.”
Siriani sees a need to better market COA services to seniors who need them but do not use them because of issues of privacy. “We need to be sensitive to people’s discomfort in a small town, and let people know that this agency is trained in discretion, and that they deserve” (she emphasizes the word) “to employ our services to improve [their quality of life].”
Younger seniors who need fitness and cultural programs “will benefit from expanded partnerships,” Siriani noted. “The library and the COA have already established a great cultural partnership, for example. There are so many resources in town, people who can provide programs, volunteers with skills.” Siriani has met and is impressed with the COA board and the Friends of the COA. “These people have so much to offer and so much energy,” she says. She is gradually making her way around to all the town boards and forging her own connections for the council. “It’s so important to brainstorm ideas,” she says. “Take CCTV, which already has senior programming. That’s a place where we could do more.”
Future space needs
What are the limitations she perceives? “Space is an issue,” she says. “Our events are often bursting at the seams. We need a gathering ground for our programs.” She knows that the idea of a senior center has been bandied about for some years now. “I’m planning to start a series of morning coffees, so that people can meet me and just chat about different topics and themes. That way I can get a feel for what the seniors see as their priorities, a feel for the town. Do we want a senior center? Do we want something [on a smaller level] like a coffee house, where people can just drop in? How do people feel about a gathering ground? Maybe that will be our first discussion question.”
Varied experiences hone skills needed as COA Director
Siriani herself is more or less a lifelong resident of Westford, and has a close family there. She grew up with grandparents around, and as a child, often participated in carol singing, visits and other events at local nursing homes with her father, who was president of the area Kiwanis Club. She was always close to her grandmothers, one of whom still lives down the street from her and her family. “I always had friends of all ages,” she says.
The road to the Carlisle Council on Aging was a somewhat circuitous one, but “I believe that everything happens for a reason. One thing really does lead to another.” Siriani graduated from Salem State College with a degree in Theater Arts. She met her husband there: “at a rally. He was a senior, one of the organizers. I was a freshman. He’s still in politics, working for Senator Fargo. We’ve been married for 16 years, but I say we’ve been together for 21.”
Siriani’s Theater Arts degree presented her with the classic choice of beating the pavement in New York to try to become an actress, or “trying to have a normal life, a relationship, a family, which isn’t easy to do when you’re trying to get acting jobs.” She elected the latter, and decided to get a graduate degree in Expressive Therapies, putting her theater skills to work in an alternative way. At 24, she had her Master’s from Lesley College, and went to work as the assistant activities coordinator at Peabody Glen Nursing Home. That was followed by a stint as director of activities at the Oakwood Nursing Home in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
She moved back to Westford to be close to her family and worked “at my dad and uncle’s metal precision fabrication business, where the Theater Arts and Expressive Therapies girl learned bookkeeping and accounting. Just what I wanted, right? But I was learning the financial management skills that would allow me to run a department. See? Everything happens for a reason!”
Her next position was “teaching theater in Lowell to boys and girls in the Youth Expressions Theater, where I was artistic director. This was a sort of traveling theater group that performed around the area doing theater about teen issues.”
By this time, Siriani and her husband had twin boys, and it was time for another job change so that she could spend more time with them. When they entered kindergarten, she continued part-time work as the activities coordinator at the Chelmsford Senior Center and as a music specialist for Next Generations preschools.” This latter was “more of a job than a career, though. Maybe when I retire, I’ll go back to it. But I began to think that I really should be looking for a career.” She felt that she had collected a fair number of skills along her road and needed to challenge herself. “I was ready. When I found out about [the Carlisle COA] job, I just knew that this was the place I was supposed to be. I’m so excited about this,” she says, picking up the little turtle. “I just have to remind myself to take it easy. One step at a time.” ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito