Growing up with one sibling who’s seven years younger, Janell Sluga ’85 had no experience sharing anything before she started at Saint Rose as an undergrad. “I moved into Lima Hall, and we shared a bedroom, a bathroom, everything!” she says. “Now, I would share anything with anyone.”
These days, she shares her talents, energy, and time with the senior citizens of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties in Western New York. A geriatric care manager for Senior Life Matters, she provides clients with counseling and services on matters such as health care, health insurance, living arrangements, and most recently tracking down the COVID-19 vaccine.
She spends most of her day talking to clients – right now, on Zoom and on the phone; under non-pandemic conditions, in person.
“I might be helping someone with Medicare or advising what to do with their health insurance – whether to buy long term care (LTC) insurance, whether to keep their current policy or look for another, or how to use their benefits,” says Sluga. “Or it might be someone transitioning to a different setting, deciding if they should keep their house, move closer to their kids, or move to assisted living.”
You might find her visiting folks who live alone in their own homes, helping them pay the bills or sort through mail. She also provides seniors with crucial assistance navigating insurance providers’ websites, www.medicare.gov, and institutional phone mazes.
Help for what ails you
Although she’s a geriatric care manager, Sluga sometimes sounds almost like a financial planner or insurance broker. “I’m not an FP (financial planner), but I do talk through these issues,” she says. “I’ll ask them about their budget and expenses. I’ll give them a personal interpretation of what’s appropriate for their situation, and what I would do if I were in their shoes.”
Unlike an FP, Sluga doesn’t receive commissions to sell certain products, and can give her personal opinion on what might work best for a given person.
“I do a cost-benefit analysis – I do the math,” she says. “I explain what the policies mean in English and suggest what would make the most sense.”
These decisions can be bewildering: Medicare presents 76 different options in these particular counties, for instance. Another is LTC: Many people won’t benefit from LTC if their net worth is too high or too low, Sluga says. A bad decision can be catastrophic.
“There was a Yale study about how bad insurance will literally kill you,” says Sluga. “I wish it were required reading for everyone.”
The job requires continuous training, which used to entail travel to Buffalo, Syracuse, or Rochester, but is currently done remotely.
“We learn about options, alternatives, coping techniques, counseling,” Sluga says.
Destination: Jamaica. No, Jamestown!
She never dreamed where her career would take her. “After graduating from Saint Rose, I spent about four years traveling, working as a waitress in resorts all over,” she says. “I thought it was the coolest thing.”
She was about to depart for Jamaica when she received word that her grandfather was ill, and her grandmother needed help. She knew what she had to do. She jumped in her Jeep and drove to her grandparents in Jamestown.
“I never made it to Jamaica,” says Sluga.
She had no concrete plans but had told herself, “I’ll figure it out in the new year.” On New Year’s Day, 1991, she opened the newspaper and saw an ad for a social worker in a nursing home.
“I didn’t expect to get it, but they hired me,” she says.
That began her career in social services over the next decade, in a nursing home and two adult homes. She joined Lutheran in 2001, first in subsidized housing, then in the brand-new Senior Life Matters, which was created because of the demand for services. In 2007, she took the test for a geriatric care manager.
Sluga loves her job and wouldn’t have had it any other way.
In addition to the individual counseling sessions, Sluga gives presentations in the community and has been penning a weekly column in the local newspaper since starting with Lutheran.
“It might be about Medicare options, an insulin-delivery device, the home energy assistance program (HEAP), SNAP food-stamp benefits – anything related to aging,” she says. “The column will be based on the phone calls I’ve been getting lately.”
In 2019, Sluga received the Employee of Distinction award by LeadingAge New York, a statewide coalition of service organizations for seniors. She’s known well beyond Western New York – she gets queries from people as far away as Oregon, whom she helps with referrals to local specialists. “Medicare and insurance are so different from region to region, not to mention state to state, so I’ll help them by looking up care managers near them,” says Sluga.
Janell Sluga with her family at Saint Rose commencement
In the Saint Rose spirit of helping
Sluga visits Albany on a regular basis to get together with girlfriends from high school. (she grew up in Altamont, near the fairgrounds) and Saint Rose. Her father, Dr. Dixon (“Doc”) Stevens, taught business at Saint Rose from 1974 until 1994.
“Saint Rose is such a special place,” she says. “The campus was the nucleus. We’d go to the Partridge Pub, down the block on Madison. We’d be at the Madison Theatre on Tuesdays for the dollar movie. There was The Camelot Room with best pizza ever!”
Sluga, who had no idea she’d become a social worker, majored in sociology and took every class she could find in psychology. She later went back to graduate school, earning her master’s degree at Alfred University in 2000.
“What Saint Rose taught me was how to find solutions,” she says. “There is no one ‘right’ way to do things. That’s going to be different for each person. So, you have to look at things in a bigger way to find solutions for everyone.
“At Saint Rose, everyone was about helping people and making the world a better place,” adds Sluga, who embraced that motivation as her own personal mantra. “I try to do the best every day for everyone. My intent is to leave you feeling better than when you came in.”