AARP head a very capable leader



By Sondra L. Shapiro

With the economy still in the skids, affecting programs and services for aging Americans nationwide, it is comforting to know there are advocates in the trenches fighting the good fight.

The newest member to join the ranks is the very accomplished Michael Festa, 58, the recently appointed state director of AARP Massachusetts. The name will be familiar to many since Festa began his career as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, then served as a state rep from Melrose from 1999 to 2007 when he was named Elder Affairs secretary, serving until 2009. Festa also had a longstanding law practice in his hometown of Melrose.

Throughout his career, Festa has shown a sharp knowledge of and passion for the concerns of the state’s older residents. As a state representative, he was famous for his annual senior appreciation luncheons held in his hometown.

“Seniors have been great to me. They don’t ask much; they are reluctant to ask. So the idea of throwing a free lunch where seniors could hang out, listen to some entertainment, have a little fun for a few hours, really appealed to me,” said Festa during a 2007 Advocate interview.

shapiro_hs“When I left the district attorney’s office in 1981 and began to practice law in Melrose, the client base included seniors. And as an attorney, you get to know the intimate concerns of your clients. They have financial concerns, health issues … so, you build up an appreciation for their challenges,” he said during that same interview.

As a representative, Festa was visible, accessible and caring toward the population he was elected to serve, according to those advocates representing the state’s older population and caregivers.

He was the lead sponsor of the “Equal Choice for Senior and Disabled Persons” law and led successful efforts to increase state and federal funding for home care, long term care and elder protective services. During his tenure he received the Outstanding Achievement and Representative of the Year award from the Silver Haired Legislature in 2006. The Massachusetts Home Care Federation recognized him as Elder Advocate of the Year in 1999 and 2006.

Upon learning about Festa’s AARP appointment, Mass Home Care head Al Norman said, “Mike Festa combines executive experience in state elder affairs with legislative expertise and intuitive advocacy skills. He will be a terrific resource not just for AARP, but for the entire elderly population in the state.”

It was Festa’s experience and knowledge that appealed to Gov. Deval Patrick, when he tapped him to head the state’s Elder Affairs office.

The Romney administration had downgraded the Elder Affairs secretariat to the point of irrelevancy by removing the independent status that had it positioned directly under the governor, to one buried under the large umbrella of Health and Human Services. But Gov. Patrick promised Festa that he would be allowed the autonomy to make decisions benefiting the 50 plus population. During his stewardship, Festa oversaw the expansion of senior employment and civic engagement opportunities, as well as increased access to resources and services for abused elders.  Festa also identified technology solutions to enhance the agency’s ability to monitor costs, analyze and disseminate data and create efficiencies to better deliver services to seniors.

Unfortunately, Festa’s passion and need for independence proved too much for the powers that be — his stint was cut short. It was a discourteously executed exit for a man who had initially resisted accepting the position until he received assurances from the governor that he would be allowed the necessary independence and support to do the job properly.

The state’s loss is AARP’s gain. In its wisdom, AARP has made a perfect choice in Festa, who replaces Deborah Banda who accepted a position with AARP’s national office to help develop its 50 plus-worker initiative.

“AARP hired me because they recognized what I have done in the past. I understand how policy is made, how budgets are put together and how priorities are determined,” said Festa. “I can be a lead advocate in the public eye as issues come up.” Festa also knows many of the state’s legislators, the governor and his team, and the current Elder Affairs Secretary, Ann Hartstein. “It’s the door-opening that comes with the long-standing relationships,” he said. He also acknowledges that those relationships reach across both sides of the aisle, as befitting his new appointment to the non-partisan AARP. “The 50-plus community is a common language we will have,” he said.

In this role, Festa will lead the development and delivery of AARP’s community programs, advocacy and information for its members.

During a recent interview with the Advocate, Festa talked about his new role as AARP head, a position he admits has extra challenges in the still very weak economy. He talked about the differences from his time at Elder Affairs to today’s climate for the aging population.

“Now I am seeing that 50 plus population, not as a government bureaucrat but as a state director who is trying to give voice to over 800,000 AARP members” he said.

“There are major issues when you speak of the economy and money and deficits that seniors are caught up in. With the cost of living stuff, the cost of fuel, food … those have exacerbated over time,” he said.

“I just enjoy being with an organization — AARP — that is in the forefront of issues that affect the senior population. Joining at this time, the emphasis is not just the older seniors, but also the 50 plus world. There are people in their 50s who are part of the sandwich generation. They are raising kids or grandkids. They are taking care of their frail elders. We want to connect with them more as an organization.”

He spoke of the difficulty people over the age of 50 have finding work. “There’s a lot of prejudice out there that has to be dealt with,” he said.

“I am not as constrained as one would be in an administration. There were some things (then) that I could not say or do. There are the rules of the road in a government role. Part of taking this job is that a lot of the issues that I care about are shared by AARP. To me it’s like riding a bike again.”

Festa admits the AARP role is much more expansive than the narrow focus of program development and money. “We are looking across society and putting our stamp on things like volunteerism,” he said. “There are a lot of members who want to be more engaged and we want to be that connective tissue. We also want provide outreach.”

Festa said he will not be chained to a desk, but plans to visit cities and towns across the state, saying, “We don’t want to lose sight of where the real action is … in the community.

“AARP is a very big national (organization). We are leading the fight against the chained CPI (consumer price index used for determining Social Security increases); we are fighting to preserve Medicare. These are big national issues. But, every member lives in a community, we need to relate to them more where they live and what they do,” he said.

While his government job was dealing with numbers, his experience as an attorney taught him to see faces. “When you are a lawyer counseling families who are challenged with estate planning, trying to preserve the few assets they have accumulated and the squeeze they feel, there is a scariness regarding long-term care choices. I witnessed the challenges faced by caregivers. I have been in my office with the door shut, (getting to know clients) intimately,” Festa said.

Festa said every budget, whether it is state or federal, is a statement of values. “It is the government and society saying these are the things that matter,” he said, singling out cuts in home care that have resulted in a waiting list for vulnerable, financially-strapped seniors. When a small investment, totaling in the hundreds, is given to a frail senior to remain living independently, it reduces the thousands of dollars it would cost for institutional care, Festa said, adding, “I don’t think as advocates we can ever concede there are other priorities. The reason why government exists is to reflect the will of society. The people who are affected by home care cuts want to stay at home longer, to enjoy life’s experiences in their home.”

Finally, Festa said AARP will work to re-establish Elder Affairs as a cabinet level position. “From personal experience I appreciate the value of the independent secretariat,” he said. “We are confident that sooner or later that view will prevail — and we hope that there will be a healthy compromise and acknowledgement that it’s a win-win. To have that voice in the cabinet is a voice that is needed, and it strengthens the hand of the administration to figure out where priorities should be. Frankly, it gives confidence to the public that this very important segment of society is part of the conversation.”

In the meantime, the state’s 50 plus population can rest easier knowing that a very capable advocate is working on its behalf.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at And follow her online at, or