She may be the most interesting and influential Toledoan you’ve never heard of. Billie Johnson is her name and in her lifetime, she has carved a legacy of caring and love and that will last for generations.
After decades of tireless passion and commitment to others, Billie Johnson, at 78, is getting the recognition that comes when your life’s work has changed the lives of so many others.
Hers is an improbable story, and one that Johnson herself didn’t realize she was forging when in 1974 she wrote the first grant to fund the framework for the Area Office on Aging. It was an early program, under United Way, to help empower the elderly and develop programs to help aging seniors live independently.
At the time, Billie was in her late 20s, and little did she know this new and noble cause she became involved with would become her mission in life – for the next five decades.
Starting with a meager budget and a staff of four, the agency only served Lucas County. But Billie Johnson saw the potential to help even more people over a wider area. Within a few years, the agency expanded and the program became its own independent non profit. In later years it would grow to cover the needs of the aging population in 10 counties of Northwest Ohio.
Both then and now, one of the primary objectives was to help older people stay in their own homes and remain independent as long as possible. And while that remains as a primary focus, the Area Office on Aging also offers a long list of other services to the seniors of the area including meeting transportation needs, benefits counseling, nutrition assistance, family caregiver support and housing assistance. Under the continuity of Johnson’s leadership, the agency now has 195 employees and a 46 acre campus, along with three low income senior housing complexes located in Defiance, Napoleon and North Baltimore that were “built from the ground up,” as Johnson says.
Her nearly five decades of dedication to the lives of the aging in Northwest Ohio is built on her commitment to “help people to age well and live healthy.” Now, nearly 50 years since she began this endeavor, Johnson is ready to retire from the agency this summer, but not ready to retire her work ethic.
“I enjoy getting up each morning and advocating for older adults,” Johnson said.
She plans to pursue some new opportunities to help seniors after her “retirement.”
So where did this motivation come from? Johnson explains it likely has roots in her upbringing when she and her brother were raised by her grandmother.
“When my grandmother and great grandmother were quilting, my brother and I would get under the quilting table and listen to them talk,” Johnson said. “We’d listen to their stories and I developed a fondness for them as awesome individuals.”
Often, they would speak of their money hardships and struggles of growing older. From that experience as a child, she felt as if perhaps she was destined to help the elderly.
“I didn’t realize it in my early years, but I did later,” Johnson said. “It was my calling. I was blessed.”
And Northwest Ohio has been blessed to have Johnson as an agent of influence and change for the aging population. Her reputation as a powerful leader in this endeavor has earned her continuing accolades, including a place in the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, a leadership role in the the World Conference on Women held in on China in the 1990s and, most recently, special recognition by the Lucas County Commissioners who held a special celebration party to honor her years of dedication to the community of seniors. In June, the Area Office on Aging is holding yet another well-deserved celebration to also honor Johnson’s life of service.
What do you plan to do after retiring?
I’m going to take a couple of months off to catch up on sleep and then work on a new project to create a Pace Program for seniors in our area. An all-inclusive program to get a variety of services. I will always be an advocate for older adults to live in dignity.
Any special challenges for you after five decades in this role?
I have met so many wonderful people and friends in doing this job in the past 49 and a half years, but as I get older, I am losing a lot of those friends as they age and pass on, that is hard.
Are attitudes changing about people who are aging?
I think people who are older have lots of wisdom and experience and we need to respect that and utilize those talents. As people age, they need things to do to keep them busy. Many aging people are just lonely. We need to find ways to make use of their resources, we need people to retire from retirement.
How does the future look for senior care?
We have made some progress but we may not be ready yet to meet the future needs for the aging population. The number of aging people is growing quickly.