Inside Track: A championing voice for the aging population
As associate state director of community outreach with AARP, Jennifer Muñoz advocates for senior initiatives.
While Jennifer Muñoz may not have set out to work with seniors, after spending seven years in the industry in various capacities, Munoz said she absolutely loves it.
“I think there is so much opportunity to enhance seniors’ lives and advocate on their behalf,” said Muñoz. “We are all going to get there someday, so I feel like I am kind of paving the way for myself and future generations to be able to have a great, dynamic community that really supports the needs of seniors.”
As the associate state director of community outreach, Muñoz has been building AARP’s presence in Grand Rapids for nearly two years and recently has been working to launch an initiative for the community to become part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.
It’s an affiliate of the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, which is designed to help cities support a growing population of older adults. As a nonprofit organization, AARP works with local officials and organizations to facilitate a community’s enrollment and implementation process to become “age-friendly.”
“We are partnering with the city of Grand Rapids to launch it. They are building these efforts into their Master Plan for 2017,” said Muñoz. “We just started kicking it off. We have an event coming up Feb. 16 and we are bringing thought leaders from the community from a variety of business sectors to provide feedback on what Grand Rapids needs in order to become an age-friendly community.”
Participating communities have five years to plan and implement the phases of the enrollment process, which target eight improvement areas: outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community support and health services.
“In order for a city to be considered age-friendly or to be certified age-friendly, they have to meet the timeframe of the five years,” said Muñoz. “This city has to be working on all of those and has to show they built it into their plan, they implemented the work that needed to be done, and then they are continuing to improve upon it.”
One of the biggest challenges for Grand Rapids is integrating all of the diverse needs of the neighborhoods and populations, she said.
“The needs of the neighborhoods are so diverse. If you ask somebody in one ZIP code what their needs are, it is going to look vastly different than someone else in a different ZIP code because Grand Rapids is such a big city,” said Muñoz.
“If you ask the disability community, they are going to look at things completely differently than people who are 70 and still active. The biggest challenge is assessing all of the needs and trying to make recommendations and to implement them.”
Muñoz said she currently is working with the city of Grand Rapids and Suzanne Schulz, director of the planning department, to complete some of the preliminary work before officially launching the initiative. The initial steering committee also includes representatives from the Area Agency on Aging, the City Commission and Rethinking Dementia Grand Rapids.
“The event we are doing on Feb. 16 is bringing all of these thought leaders together to get them to buy in as stakeholders,” said Muñoz. “We need people to work on committees, sub-committees, and really get involved with this work because it really is a community-wide initiative that requires community effort.”
As an “Age-Friendly Community,” Grand Rapids would have access to guidance from national experts, streamlined admission into the World Health Organization’s age-friendly network, resources for development assessment and survey tools, access to a volunteer network of support, and invitations to organized training and networking events.
The initiative currently has enrolled 74 communities throughout the country, including three in Michigan: Auburn Hills, Highland Park and Lansing.
Although Muñoz has been with AARP for nearly two years, she said she “kind of stumbled upon this career path.” A graduate of Central Michigan University, Muñoz has a background in broadcasting and cinematic arts, and studied journalism and political science.
She began her career at a radio station in marketing and sales before starting a family.
Being hired as a producer at WXMI FOX 17 was a career breakthrough, she said, since volunteering for the PTO and with her church didn’t translate well on a résumé.
“I was out of the workforce for 11 years, so when I decided to start looking to get my foot back in the door and was hired in at FOX 17 as a producer — that was a huge piece for me,” said Muñoz. “Then I realized it just wasn’t what I was looking for anymore. I had lost that grit of wanting to cover hard-hitting, heavy news stories.”
Muñoz found her way into the geriatric health field when she was hired to serve as the community outreach representative for Care Resources PACE — Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly. While working with the organization for nearly four years, Muñoz became involved with various networking groups and collaborative opportunities, sat on advisory councils and earned a Certificate in Aging.
“I had to learn the alphabet soup of the industry,” said Muñoz. “If I was going to be doing this work, I wanted to make sure I was competent — be able to talk the talk.”
After Care Resources, Muñoz worked as director of marketing, communications and development for Gerontology Network for nearly two years before being hired by AARP.
“They hired me on because they wanted somebody who was from Grand Rapids, who lived in the community, knew the community, worked in the aging arena, and understood kind of how all the players came together in this city,” said Muñoz.
“I feel very proud and blessed that I have had the opportunity to rise as quickly in my career as I have.”
Now two years into her role as associate state director of community outreach, Muñoz said she absolutely loves the job and some days she can’t believe she gets paid for what she does “knowing (I’m) making a big difference and being that voice for kind of the underdog and the vulnerable in the community.”
“Seniors are cast aside in society. Ageism pushes them under and makes them feel irrelevant,” said Muñoz. “The work that I’ve done and the studies I’ve read that AARP has conducted, it is just fascinating to find out how powerful the aging population really is and yet how it is suppressed. I have the opportunity to be that voice when I go out and do presentations.”
Muñoz said AARP focuses on efforts in education, advocacy and outreach not only with the post-retirement population, but also those who are preparing for their “second act of life.” She said AARP conducts presentations, workshops and programs on topics such as reinventing their lives, fraud, the value of the older adult worker, the power of the longevity economy and “encore entrepreneurs.”
“One of the things in my work I am always trying to do is to dispel the myth that we are an insurance company or that we are just a membership company,” said Muñoz. “We do so much at an advocacy level and we do so much when it comes to education.”