Interview with Lee Michelson, CEO of Sequoia Healthcare District

As Summer gives way to Fall in southern San Mateo County, schools resume for the year and families prepare for the next several months, it was fitting to explore transitions within the leadership of the Sequoia Healthcare District (SHD) where CEO Lee Michelson has just recently announced his retirement from over 8 years of tenure at the helm. Lee’s years of inspirational leadership and service in the non-profit sector included several organizations in the Midwest and West Coast.  On board since May of 2009, SHD covers Mid to Southern San Mateo County.  Michelson was most recently moved to offer a resource for older adults in his District in which older adults are better prepared and supported to live longer, healthier, happier lives.

The 70 Strong initiative launched in January of 2017 in response to his call that the District he serves meets the demands of the growing older adult population, in connecting them successfully to resources and activities that promote optimal overall health, meaningful connections to the community and sense of purpose, and available resources for not just aging in place, but thriving in community as well.

70 Strong Lead Navigator Theodora Kyle-Singer inquired with Michelson on his own reflections on what aging means to him, for insights on how he arrived at his own philosophy of leadership in our local area and how he plans for his future.

Michelson was very clear that he wanted freedom in his later years, including having control over how he spends his time, his life, with the flexibility to delve into, flow back and forth, and explore his interests. The basis of this was financial planning by in large. Being raised with modest means was countered with hard work, dedication leading to a successful career in non-profit leadership, avoiding debt, all while alongside a spouse who supported these goals and worked as a team with him. His defensive coaching style with youth similarly has included the defensive tactics of being prepared, so the other team scores less and thus influencing the way the game is played and the greater likelihood of a successful game. It is important to him to do what makes him happy and to not do the things that do not make him happy. Being able to support his family in whatever means is equally among his values.

Michelson prefers the options of volunteering, the potential for consulting, and opportunities for involvement in the local community moving forward.  All these cards are available on the table and balanced at will with family time, including tending to a grandchild under 1 year of age.  (Yes, he has been known to change a diaper now and then for his 20-month-old grandson Meyer although he also has 7-year-old twin grandchildren, Naomi and Jonah.)

What is notable is that while he put in progress his plans for flexibility in retirement, he could not foresee the opportunities before him that would place him in a few varying locations within the Midwest and now the West Coast, in the past several years. Furthermore, he will be taking flight to the East Coast where his family resides, at the turn of the year. It will be a time of exploration throughout the East with physical closeness to family, something he looks forward to.

Most influential in his views on aging and decision-making was the experience of caring for and supporting two parents who outlived their savings, who lived longer lives without the tools to anticipate their longevity and support themselves, and a parent who suffered from Alzheimer’s.  The seed of financial independence was planted, but also alongside the conundrum of his aging parents who had a hard time accepting help from their adult son. This was an “unavoidable lesson” for Michelson who also describes his father’s last two years as a very difficult experience, but also a time of closeness to his father especially.

Michelson plans to continue to contribute his time and energy to his family and local community, in ways he chooses.  Recognizing that his East coast relocation is essentially starting over, he expressed some hesitation with the social aspects, not having an immediate support system to plug into or knowing where activities are located and how to get connected to them.

Ironically, the program and service he encouraged in his own health district here, to support older adults with this aspect of living longer and healthier, 70 Strong, does not exist in other parts of the country including Englewood, New Jersey. He is not one to be solitary and prefers physical activity with plans to join a local established fitness center. However, he is not in any rush to preemptively plan for this change, as he wants to live in the present and enjoy the conclusion of his responsibilities here in this part of San Mateo County where he resides.

Reflecting on his influential 40-year career, he does not share a feeling of regret that some are prone to at this stage in their lives. Rather, he is content with his many accomplishments and does not see any of his time as wasted.

When asked what his philosophy on aging includes he wryly states, “It beats the alternative” with the punctuated energy that backs his follow-up comment, “getting older doesn’t mean getting old” and “people have a lot to offer at all stages of life.”  

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