Pioneer Network is proud to have Penny Cook as our new President & CEO…and we’d like you to Meet Penny Cook

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I’ve been on the job now with Pioneer Network for two weeks and I am loving every minute. I’ve been reconnecting with people I haven’t interacted with in a few years and I’m meeting new people every day. It’s brought into focus that we all have a story and that stories are the building blocks of relationships. Some people know our stories, but many times we don’t share them. Maybe we don’t want to talk about ourselves or maybe we think they’re too personal. But stories are a powerful tool to help us be known, to our friends, our families, our coworkers and those we partner with for care and support. As we tell our story we deepen relationships. We may not always agree with one another, but stories break down barriers and help us to respect one another.

So, for those of you who I haven’t met and even for those who I’ve known for years, I’m going to tell you my story as a way to develop and enhance our relationship. Many of you have read about my professional background but that’s only part of who I am and why I have the passion for changing the culture of aging and the way we provide care and support to people.

I grew up in a small city in upstate New York with a large extended family on my father’s side. My grandmother was a major influence on my life as she cared for me while both my parents worked. She really didn’t do anything out of the ordinary except to incorporate me into her life. When she planted vegetables, I learned how to plant and harvest. When she baked, I learned how to make her famous apple strudel. When she knitted, I began to make scarves. It was all very natural, as was helping out my grandmother’s siblings and friends. They experienced illnesses, chronic diseases and they sometimes needed help to care for themselves. I remember my grandmother stepping in whenever needed, with me at her side. Most of the time they were living in their family homes, but sometimes they were living in nursing homes. When we went to visit, I remember thinking that this was so different. My great aunts and uncles didn’t even seem like the same people. They were living in small rooms with a few other people, sometimes as many as four, with no privacy. I remember thinking that there were no chairs for us to sit in while we visited. Even at that early age, I knew it wasn’t right. I knew that just because you got older, you shouldn’t be treated this way. That message has always stayed with me.

These early experiences fueled a desire to go into health care. I believed if we could change the way we delivered care to people and if we got to know people for who they are, then we could change this culture. My goal of becoming a doctor abruptly changed my junior year of college when my father became ill and died after a 3-month hospitalization. I was with him every day. It was a terrifying yet thought-provoking glimpse into our health care system and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. A series of events led me to a social work program and I knew I found a profession and a career where I could make a difference. My love of medicine combined with my ever-present desire to have older adults treated with respect and dignity no matter who they were and where they lived, spurred me into my first job after graduate school, as a medical social worker in Rochester, NY. I worked on a hospital floor where patients were waiting to move into a nursing home. There weren’t many places available at that time so many patients “lived” on that hospital floor for months. As a 22-year old recent graduate, it was the greatest professional experience ever. It was there that I was invited to a Geriatric Journal Club run by Carter and Dr. T. Franklin Williams. It was there that I met Rose Marie Fagan when she was the Ombudsman for Monroe County. Rose Marie later became one of the founders of Pioneer Network and its first Executive Director. It was there that I knew my life would never stray far from changing this system to ensure all people are treated with dignity and respect.

We all have stories about why we do what we do. I’d love to hear yours. Please connect with me on Facebook or LinkedIn or better yet, email me at penny.cook@pioneernetwork.net. By the way, I’m incredibly excited that our annual conference is in Denver in August. It’s been my home for 20 years and I can’t wait for all of you to come and experience the conference and all that Denver and Colorado have to offer!

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