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Social change at heart of WNY health foundation

Nora OBrien-Suric learned to impact social change at the shoulder of some influential people in the aging field:

• Robert N. Butler, a geriatric psychiatrist and founding director of the National Institute on Aging;

• Rose Dobrof, a geriatric social worker who established the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College in New York City, where she got her doctorate in social welfare in the mid-1980s;

• Janet Sainer, commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging under Mayor Edward Koch for 12 years.

Her grandmother and namesake, Nora OBrien, played a big role, too.

"She worked as an LPN in a nursing home," said OBrien-Suric, who earlier this year became president of the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York. "I was 9 and she would take me through the nursing home to meet all the residents. I loved it because I got so much attention. It had an impact because my grandmother was so beloved in our family and everyone was so looking forward to bringing her home and spending time with her, and yet here were these older people so lonely."

"That's why I chose social work instead of becoming a nurse or physician. I thought social workers helped change society."

OBrien-Suric, a Paramus, N.J. native, now leads a foundation with a $115 million endowment designed to support the most vulnerable older adults and youngest children across 16 counties upstate. The foundation formed in 2001 when Univera Healthcare merged with Excellus, a BlueCross BlueShield company, into a health insurance combination that serves both communities.

Folks worried about her lack of experience in the child health realm shouldn't be, OBrien-Suric said. She's become a grandmother in recent years – her three stepgrandchildren call her "Nonna" – "and that's opened my eyes to the importance of upbringing, supportive care and education needed for young children."

The foundation grants $5 million to $7 million a year, depending on the earnings of its conservatively managed stock portfolio, and supports healthy aging, caregiving, child developmental, child dental and nonprofit leadership development programs.

Large photos in its headquarters, perched on the fifth floor of the Larkin Square Building, give a glimpse of the some of the places that matter to staff. They include images from Buffalo Head Start, Jericho Road Community Health Center, a falls prevention class in Springville and the PACE (all-inclusive care for the elderly) program at OLV.

"The thing about health care that drives me crazy is that it's disease-focused," OBrien-Suric said. "You need a holistic, systems approach. We want to understand the fabric of society and help weave it as tightly as possible."

Q. What attracted you to move from Manhattan for this upstate job?

Nora OBrien-Suric calls the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York "small and mighty." (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

I worked at a national level, which is great, but I was looking for more meaning in my life, something more tangibly rewarding. When I saw how hands-on this organization is at the local level, that really attracted me. I wanted to work with community leaders, roll up my sleeves and identify the people who are trying to improve society locally. This foundation is small and mighty. I came to know about through my national work and was really impressed with the foresight in strategic grant-making, how they take what they give and leverage that with help from other foundations to help the communities they serve.

Q. What early impressions do you and your husband, Dragan Suric, have of Buffalo?

I love the openness, not only of the city being really livable, but the people are open and friendly. I find people to be genuinely caring and engaged. People love Buffalo. You can just feel it. People talk about it with such pride and enthusiasm that it’s infectious. My husband lived in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. He moved to the States when he was 35. He says Buffalo reminds him a lot of Zagreb. Foundation Board Chair Joe Cozzo already calls him “the walking billboard for Buffalo.”

We’re trying to get out to the local hiking areas. We like that and so does our dog (a rescued poodle mix named Toto). We love the vibe in downtown Buffalo … walking around and exploring neighborhoods.

Q. What do you see as the pressing needs here in terms of health and wellness?

Maintaining the level of services and funding that we have. We're all very concerned about health reform and the budget because children and older people are going to be negatively impacted. What we have heard so far does not look good. Cutting anything in Medicaid is going to have an impact on young children and families. Raising premiums for older people is going to outprice them for services. People think Medicare covers everything but it doesn't cover dental care. It doesn't cover hearing aids. It doesn't cover eyeglasses.

Q. What have you seen as strengths and challenges when it comes to older adult communities?

One of the things people don't acknowledge or understand about older adults is their resiliency and their strength. Having lived to a certain age, they've already endured and survived a lot of trauma, and people don't give them enough credit for that. People want to feel that they have a purpose in life. Acknowledging an older person and what they're able to contribute in any way is incredibly important to them. … One of the things that's getting a lot of attention now are the social determinants of health. One of them is giving people purpose and hope. That will combat depression and lift their spirits. And depression has a co-morbid effect with cardiac and other conditions.

Things people don't often think about – income, housing, food security, transportation, social integration – all of these are really important. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are acknowledging this now. This is part of what the Western New York Integrative Care Collaborative is doing now. It's helping address the social determinants of health in the community and being able to lower health care costs. This is still relatively new here, but others like this across the country are showing incredible success. When an Accountable Care Organization partners with a health care or hospital system, some are showing a 50 to 75 percent reduction in hospital re-admissions, and also lowering non-essential emergency room visits. This is saving hospitals money.

Q. What are the key steps in raising young kids, especially the most vulnerable?

Strong, resilient families. ... I have learned that the ages of 0 to 6 are the most crucial years in a child’s development – and what happens in those years will have an impact on those people as adults. Children living in trauma at those young ages will end up with multiple chronic diseases in old age. Studies have shown a correlation between the two. The more that we can have an impact on having physically and mentally healthy children, the better older adults we’re going to have down the road, too.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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