Orange County, CA, (June 17, 2020) ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Hints of Patricia McKeon’s interest in helping others were evident during her 15-year stint as a house cleaner. As she moved through the houses, dusting and mopping, she listened to a variety of radio psychologists on her headset.
At 50, she decided it was time for a career change. After watching as her parents and the people in the houses she cleaned got older and increasingly dealt with health and family issues, McKeon realized she wanted to become a caregiver and started an educational journey to a gerontology master’s program at Cal State Fullerton that lasted another 15 years.
She took classes at Saddleback and Coastline community colleges in human behavior and gerontology, got a gerontology certificate of achievement and a bachelor’s in human services with a minor in mental health at Cal State Fullerton in 2011. She has worked for the past 10 years as a long-term care ombudsman for the Council on Aging of Southern California.
"People don’t understand the needs of the elderly," said McKeon, 65, who lives in Laguna Beach. "They don’t want to see mom and dad as being needy. They start viewing their parents as children, which is wrong. Adult children and older parents have to develop some sort of adult-to-adult relationships."
McKeon’s accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. She recently was awarded the 2020 Betty Robertson Award, which is named for one of the founders of CSUF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The award recognizes an older degree candidate who values and represents lifelong learning, said John Blaydes, head of the committee that selects the honoree.
"The reason Patricia was selected is because she has had a variety of life experiences in a whole variety of fields, so we thought she might be a perfect choice for us," Blaydes said. "She is a lifelong learner, and that is what OLLI is all about."
McKeon has also overcome some challenges in life, he said.
Growing up in Laguna Beach, McKeon said she graduated from high school focused more on partying than college. She had jobs at a hotel and a hamburger stand, but eventually decided she wanted to work with children.
She started classes in childhood education and worked in child care and as a teacher’s aide. She got an associates degree in childhood studies, but realized it wasn’t the path she wanted to take.
McKeon was also battling some demons — her drinking continued and she started abusing drugs, she said. She wound up as one of the first clients of Human Options, a women’s shelter, after a relationship turned abusive.
"My relationship at the time, with the drinking and the drugs, became violent, which is completely out of my sphere," McKeon said. "I was not raised in that type of environment."
In the early 1980s she took classes on alcohol and drug abuse and worked on getting sober.
McKeon said she started doing house cleaning because she liked the work and the independence of setting her own schedule.
"I thought, what’s wrong with me, I really like cleaning," she said with a laugh.
When she was 55, right after her father died, she started work on her bachelor’s at CSUF.
It was during an internship with the Council on Aging of Southern California that McKeon found her place — a little later than most, she acknowledged.
She’s an ombudsman, serving as an advocate for seniors in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
"Many of them don’t have families, we are there to be a confidante," she said. "We are not mandated reporters although if we feel a problem is bad enough there are channels we can report to and make sure the issues are addressed. We have to follow the residents' right to self determination. What others may view as not a good decision, it’s their right to make the decision for themselves."
She said the work, which became full-time two years ago, has opened doors for her about cutting-edge programs other agencies are doing.
With the master’s program in gerontology, McKeon hopes to continue her journey.
"It’s for credibility, definitely," she said about being part of the program. "And it’s a small field. There aren’t that many professional gerontologists out there. I’ve had professors say, ‘Gee, what’s gerontology?’ People ask me all the time. It’s kind of frightening considering where we’re headed with the demographics."
McKeon said she can see herself developing a business doing consulting in the field.
"I don’t want to do management. I like direct care work," she said. "What I love about being an ombudsman is advocating for that older person. Being the voice for them within their own family, even, and showing them what options they have for living out the rest of their life."