Monica White to lead the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living
For Monica White, the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, the work is personal.
White, 40, has lived in Vermont her whole life. She grew up in Barre and Waterbury, surrounded by grandparents who she said were “incredibly strong influences on my life.” In 2019, her grandfather died after nine years in a nursing home, the first of her grandparents to go.
White described him as “an incredibly strong and vibrant individual,” a lover of music and making it, a unicycle-rider, fantastic handyman, jokester, and the family’s “rock.” After he was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, his condition deteriorated quickly, knocking the “family off of our collective axis,” White said.
His experience with the disease and the impact it had on her family continue to inspire her to serve aging Vermonters and Vermonters with disabilities today.
“I’ve always been passionate about DAIL’s mission: to make Vermont the best state in which to grow old or to live with a disability — with dignity, respect, and independence — and I am grateful to Governor Scott for the opportunity to serve as DAIL’s commissioner,” White said in a statement.
The department provides services for older Vermonters, those with physical and developmental disabilities, the blind and visually impaired, the deaf and hard of hearing, and Vermonters with autism, as well as their caregivers and support providers.
White had been the interim commissioner since March and previously led the department’s Covid-19 response as the director of operations.
The pandemic posed a major challenge for the department, which serves many of the populations most vulnerable to Covid-19 — older people, people with disabilities and people with chronic health conditions.
In her role, White oversaw outbreak prevention in long-term care facilities, including distribution of personal protective equipment, establishment of an emergency staffing pool, testing and vaccine distribution.
Just over half — 53% — of all Covid-19 deaths in the state came from long-term care facilities, according to Vermont Department of Health data. Still, Vermont responded to outbreaks at nursing homes more aggressively and comprehensively than many other states, partially because of its small size.
“The past six years have been the most rewarding and fulfilling of my career,” White said. “I’m incredibly honored to have the opportunity to continue on in this role to use the skills that I’ve developed and the partnerships that I’ve had to continue DAIL’s work.”
White previously worked at the Agency of Human Services for eight years, serving as the director of health care operations, compliance and improvement, and as the financial director.
“Monica has dedicated much of her career to public service and human services, and she’s done it well,” Gov. Phil Scott said in making the appointment. “She’s a proven leader who will be able to hit the ground running in this permanent role while continuing to build on her good work.”
White, who now lives in Plainfield, received her bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s College of Maine and her master’s degree in business administration from Norwich University. She is also a graduate of the Snelling Center Vermont Leadership Institute.
Vermont has one of the oldest populations in the country, with the fifth-highest median age and sixth-highest percentage of population 65 years or older as of 2019. The Vermont median age is 42.8, more than four years older than the national average of 38.5.
Vermont’s population is also aging rapidly. While Vermonters older than 65 accounted for 18% of the state’s population in 2017, they are projected to account for 28% by 2030. In 2017, Vermont had 15,000 residents older than 85. By 2050, that number is expected to exceed 50,000, according to the annual report from White’s department.
An aging population means more demand for the support services the department and its partners provide.
At the same time, the health care sector faces a staffing crisis in the wake of the pandemic. Many of the department’s partners report extreme challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, including long-term care facilities and home health agencies, according to White.
While staffing shortages at care facilities have worsened since the pandemic, they have been a longtime problem for the state. A report into the 2017 death of Jordan Machia, a 22-year-old who had physical and mental disabilities, found there is a “lack of capacity in Vermont to obtain and retain highly trained and professional home care staff to provide consistent and safe care to people with disabilities able to live in the community with appropriate supports and staffing.”
Vermont seniors are also some of the most financially insecure in the country. Many Vermonters older than 65 live above the poverty line yet do not have enough income to meet the cost of basic needs — 31% of elderly couples and 43% of single seniors.
Many older Vermonters also do not have access to reliable transportation, a real problem in the state’s rural landscape. A lack of accessible housing, older homes without accessibility measures and cold, icy winters mean many seniors are prone to falls, according to White.
In the wake of passage of the Older Vermonters Act in the fall, the department has proposed an Action Plan for Aging Well. White said the plan aims to “make Vermont an age-friendly state across all sectors and assure that older Vermonters are included and mindfully considered across everything we do as a state.”
Her goal is to continue to spread awareness such that “aging and disability is not an afterthought, that it’s just part of the thread of the fabric of who we are as a society that is inclusive of all.”
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