Heavyweight Volunteer: Stuart Ho

The men in Stuart Ho’s family have been heavy weights in business for three generations. His father, legendary developer Chinn Ho, turned the ‘Ilikai into the state’s first high-rise luxury resort in the 1960s. Stuart served on the boards of such notable companies as Aloha Airlines, Gannett Co., and Pacific Resources in a long and successful career as state legislator, attorney and executive. Today, son Peter Ho is continuing the family tradition of business stewardship as president and CEO of Bank of Hawai‘i.

At 75, Stuart is busier than ever in retirement. “There was a time when retirement meant the beginning of declining health and slower pace. Nowadays, when your reach the age of 50 you’re just beginning the second half of your life and hitting your stride,” he grins. “The 50s, 60s and 70s are a chance to reinvent yourself, whether you want to keep working, change careers, spend time with family or search for a new adventure. But good health and financial security are the keys.”

Stuart practices what he preaches. He hits the gym six times a week, plays golf regularly and remains one of Hawai‘i’s most influential community leaders. And he’s dedicated to making Hawai‘i a better place by taking up important social causes such as making health care and long-term care reform more affordable and accessible. As volunteer State President of AARP Hawai‘i, the non-profit member organization for people age 50-plus, he’s in a good position to do just that.

GM: Your father started his business in Hawai‘i more than a half century ago. What can you tell us about that time?

SH: The center of town was Fort and King, and the flying time to San Francisco was a long 9-1/2 hours. Doctors made house calls. We ate dinner at 5 o’clock, and didn’t lock our front door at night. No one dreamt tourism would replace sugar and pineapple. The Boeing 707 changed all that, of course. You could say the 707 and the GI Bill changed everything.

GM: The name Chinn Ho is iconic in Hawai‘i. How did your father influence your career direction?

SH: By providing my siblings and me the best education he could afford. We really didn’t see much of him. He worked 24/7. But I was able to absorb what was going on around him: what he was thinking; whose advice he valued; and eventually the odd realization that some of the best help and advice he got was from people on the Mainland who had scarcely heard of Hawai‘i let alone dealt with a Chinese-American who spoke fractured English.

GM: How did growing up the son of Chinn Ho influence your view of tourism’s growth and the future of Hawai‘i?

SH: Dad was a very early believer that Hawai‘i’s future lay with tourism. He sensed from the start what the jet plane could do for Hawai‘i. But one piece of wisdom that has stuck with me all these years actually came from the late Henry Walker. Henry was chairman of Amfac and a big sugar guy. I remember him saying, “The best asset Hawai‘i has is its good weather.” You have to travel to a lot of places to realize how true that is—and how much people are willing to pay for what we take for granted. Our good weather has made tourism the cornerstone of our economy. Despite a lot of wishful thinking to the contrary, I think tourism is the only practical means we have of growing our economy—if we have the good sense to allow that to happen.

GM: Looking back at your career as a legislator, an attorney and a businessman, is there a single accomplishment you’re proudest of?

SH: A lot of people will disagree with me on this, but I’m proudest of leading the floor fight in the State House on the abortion bill in 1970. The bill easily passed the Senate, but passage was really in doubt in the House. I felt very strongly that we had to have such a law. I deeply admired Gov. John A. Burns, a devout Catholic, for leaving his private views out of it, and I was grateful to Speaker Tadao Beppu for his steady support. But as the majority floor leader I had the problem of stitching the votes together, one-by-one. It was very close, but we did it.

GM: You could do anything you want in retirement. Why did you take on the role of AARP Hawai‘i’s top volunteer?

SH: A few years ago my aunt appointed me as her guardian, and that introduced me to the world of long-term care. Frankly, I was appalled by what she had to experience. At the time I was the CEO of Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, and while Rehab was not a long-term care provider, it somewhat familiarized me with the problems in health care … my aunt’s experience brought it all home. One day AARP’s Hawai‘i Director Barbara Kim Stanton dropped by after visiting a patient upstairs. Barbara was up to her eyeballs in long-term care policy challenges. We commiserated about our problems, and she suddenly popped the question: Would I be interested in being the volunteer state president of AARP? After learning more about AARP I realized that with its 150,000 members in Hawai‘i and more than 38 million members nationally, the position could be a tremendous opportunity to promote positive social change. So I enlisted.

GM: What kinds of changes are needed and why?

SH: To answer that question we have to look at the challenges and opportunities related to longevity. A child born in 2000 will live about 30 years longer than one born a century ago. That’s great, but in order to live your best life you need to be both healthy and financially secure, and many Hawai‘i residents need help in both areas.

GM: Let’s start with health. Why are health care changes needed?

SH: Because the rising cost of health care threatens the financial security of individuals, families and businesses. That’s why AARP supported the health reform law Congress passed last year. It provides important health benefits that will improve health care for older Americans—and reduces the federal deficit by $143 billion over the next 10 years. It protects Medicare’s guaranteed benefits, and it stops insurance companies from denying coverage to people if they’re sick.

GM: Can you cite an example of the impact of the law in Hawai‘i?

SH: In 2009 about 16,500 Hawai‘i seniors with Medicare prescription drug coverage fell into the coverage gap known as the “doughnut hole” where out-of-pocket expenses skyrocket. This year, the new law gives these beneficiaries a 50% discount on brand-name prescription drugs. The law eventually eliminates the coverage gap entirely. That will provide financial relief to a lot of seniors.

GM: Let’s take a closer look at financial security. How important is Social Security to Hawai‘i seniors?

SH: Protecting Social Security is critical. There are more than 220,000 Social Security beneficiaries in Hawai‘i, about 160,000 of whom are retirees receiving an average monthly benefit of about $1,080 a month. Social Security accounts for a whopping 90% of the family income of 15% of our residents age 65 and older. It makes up more than half of the income for 30% of older residents.

GM: Is Social Security in danger of going broke?

SH: No. Even if no changes are made, Social Security can pay out full benefits until 2037 and nearly three-quarters of promised benefits after that. As a national leader on Social Security, AARP will continue to work in a non-partisan way to ensure reform of the program to achieve long-term solvency. Future generations can count on it being there for them.

GM: Does AARP support raising the retirement age?

SH: We listen carefully to our members on all issues, and AARP members have serious reservations about proposals to raise the retirement age, now or in the future. In part, that’s because they know how difficult it is for older Americans to find and keep jobs into their mid and late 60s.

GM: In addition to your volunteer work with AARP, you’re also chairman of the Hawai‘i Long Term Care Commission. What is the Commission working on?

SH: In 2008, the Long Term Care Commission was created to review Hawai‘i’s current system of long-term care and make recommendations for improvement to the state Legislature. It’s a complex challenge rooted in the rapid growth of our elderly population and the absence of affordable care options. Statistics show that about two-thirds of people age 65 and older will need some form of care assistance in their lifetimes. The trouble is, we pay among the highest private nursing home rates in the country and our care facilities are at full capacity. That’s putting tremendous pressure on Hawai‘i families, including family caregivers who provide unpaid care to loved ones at great physical, emotional and financial cost to themselves.

GM: What are the possible solutions?

SH: The Commission will make its recommendations to the state Legislature in 2012, and it would be unfair of me to speculate what they will be at this point. AARP Hawai‘i is advocating at the Legislature to support programs like Kupuna Care, which provides personal grooming, chore services, hot meals and other services to Hawai‘i seniors in their homes. Evidence suggests that it’s cheaper to care for people in their homes than in institutions. Besides, home is where most people want to be as they get older.

GM: As you mentioned earlier, at age 50 many of us are just hitting our stride … the kids are grown, our careers are set. How would you recommend capitalizing on this time of life?

SH: We all have a lot to offer our community— regardless of age. For example, I’m volunteering with AARP to advocate for important causes and help people live their best lives after age 50. I encourage anyone interested in staying healthy to stay engaged in our community by volunteering in some way. Such as with AARP’s upcoming Annual March for Meals and Kupuna Care Rally on March 29. We welcome the public, including your readers!


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