One of the things I love about Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging is the amazing history of the organization and the impact it has made in the field of aging. The Institute has served Cleveland area residents since 1908, fulfilling Benjamin Rose’s vision that people should be able to maintain their comfort and dignity as they age. The programs and services have always strived to be state of the art, and have helped influence and develop supports for older adults and family caregivers across the country.
Benjamin Rose had a vision. But much of the credit for how that vision became reality is due to Margaret Wagner.
Margaret Wagner came to Benjamin Rose as its Executive Secretary in 1930 and served as its chief executive until her retirement in 1959. Throughout her tenure, the agency evolved and adapted to better meet the needs of its clients and reflect sweeping changes in society, healthcare and social programs. She guided the organization through the Great Depression and the failure of the bank that held a portion of the endowment. Throughout the 1930s, she led the transition of Benjamin Rose from being a provider of modest pensions and payer of medical bills to an organization that delivered direct services, conducted research and advocated for sound public policy and quality programs for older people. She established a professional social services and intake program and hired licensed social workers to run it. Margaret Wagner and others wrote articles, taught classes and worked with many other organizations to develop an array of social services and supports. During her tenure, Benjamin Rose established one of the first geriatric care hospitals in the country, developed a model for community senior centers and promoted effective supports for persons living with chronic health conditions. Benjamin Rose Institute became known as a leading advocate for quality long-term care and skilled care services.
Margaret Wagner had a reputation as a fierce advocate for older adults, “the kind of person who would bang on the table to get her point across.” In Benjamin Rose Institute, the First 100 Years, there are examples of her taking a leading role in challenging the status quo. “We became familiar figures in City Hall,” she was quoted as saying. Whether it was dealing with planning and zoning requirements, or calling out mismanagement of Ohio’s Aid for Aged programs, she was a powerful and formidable voice for the aged.
Benjamin Rose began offering housing for older adults in 1938, and bought its first property outright in 1941, naming it Belford House. Two other properties were added during the decade, providing affordable housing and quality care. By the late 1950s, the board of directors decided to consolidate the homes into a single location, and Margaret Wagner, who had by now announced her plan to retire, was retained as a consultant to complete the project. The new building, known as Margaret Wagner House, opened in 1961. It was a state-of-the-art facility, built, as Ms. Wagner put it, “on the basis of what (we) had learned elders wanted – not on what others thought they should have.” Doorways were wide to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs. Window sills were low, fixtures were designed for ease of use. Fifty-years before universal design or adaptive equipment became common themes in the design of housing for older adults, they were present at Margaret Wagner House. “I loved the job,” she was quoted in 1961. “I personally tried out every chair bought for the home.” More than two decades later, Margaret Wagner moved into the building that bears her name, where she lived until her passing in 1984.
Margaret Wagner House continues to be a key part of service delivery at Benjamin Rose, and an illustration of how our programs and services continue to adapt to meet changing needs of older adults. Margaret Wagner House has been a skilled nursing home and rehab facility, a training site for nursing and medical school students. It hosted the first Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) in Ohio. It served as the site of our adult day programs and Behavioral Health Day Treatment. It houses the kitchen that supports our Home Delivered Meals and Community Meals programs. And, since 1998, it has been the home of Margaret Wagner Apartments, when the building began to be used for affordable housing apartments for older adults in Cleveland Heights.
This spring, we will break ground on a project to expand the number of apartments in the complex and undertake renovations to upgrade and improve the property. This will include the addition of 20 apartments, and renovation and refreshment of the existing apartments and common areas. We will replace aging elevators and HVAC systems, restore the main entry and lobby areas, and add new community spaces. And, just as was done in Margaret Wagner’s day, it will be done with high quality materials and finishes and in keeping with adaptive design concepts - “based on what older adults want.” It will be fitting tribute to a remarkable woman and her contributions to the field of aging. And a place that residents will be proud to call “home.”