John FeatherInvesting in Seniors for Stronger Communities

By: John Feather In: Philanthropy

21 Aug 2013

In 1988, President Reagan proclaimed August 21st to be National Senior Citizens Day. He hoped that the country could unite in recognizing the important role that seniors play in communities across the country. Seniors are entrepreneurs. Between 1996 and 2010, adults over 55 had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity. They were also twice as likely to found a tech firm as were adults under 25. Seniors are volunteers. One in four Americans over the age of 55 volunteers his or her time. That is more than 18 million people contributing a total 3 billion hours of service every year.

Many seniors, however, are also faced with serious challenges to their health and well-being.  Without the support of their community, many will be hospitalized or marginalized. Fortunately there is an active network of philanthropies working to ensure that this generation of older Americans is the healthiest and most active ever. With innovative and strategic thinking, grantmakers across the country are improving senior care, fighting economic insecurity, and building communities that embrace the elderly while empowering them to contribute.

Currently 8.3 million seniors with low-income or disability rely on Medicaid to supplement other government benefits. In a time of government belt-tightening at all levels, we must get the most impact possible from limited funding. One way that is happening is through the Cash & Counseling Program at the National Resource Center for Participant Directed Services. This program partners with state Medicaid programs to let patients with disabilities and other long-term care needs manage a flexible budget, directing it to the care and services they most need. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the program has expanded from a three-state pilot to 15 states nationwide. Given control over their healthcare decisions, participants show better results, staying in their homes and engaged in their communities, with no increase in cost to Medicaid.

However, even those who avoid health problems may still face severe economic insecurity. More than 22 million Americans over 60 are at or near the Federal Poverty Line and rely on benefits to make ends meet. This problem disproportionately affects women and people of color, with 60% of Hispanic women and 65% of African American women aging into economic insecurity. The Atlantic Philanthropies, through grantees, has helped to restore $7.5 billion in unclaimed government benefits and $50 million in lost pensions to seniors facing economic hardship.  The program addresses the fact that sometimes lack of access is caused by a lack of information about available resources.

This kind of outreach has been critical to the programs of the Connecticut Community Foundation. The group’s aging program is dedicated to keeping seniors “healthy, informed, and engaged using community organizations for outreach,” says president and CEO Paula van Ness. “At the town level, we’ve had success hosting community conversations on aging to talk about what the needs are and how they can be addressed.” This level of local organizing is critical to creating what Grantmakers in Aging refers to as “age friendly communities.”

GIA has mobilized more than $1.5 million through their Community AGEnda to help communities across the country plan for and support their aging populations. This program will create a toolkit for non-profits, foundations, and other community leaders to engage the elderly in public policy and urban planning. The program has helped establish volunteer and employment opportunities, resource centers, and new community support services in the targeted communities.

These are just some of the many ways in which philanthropy is investing in our elderly population. With the ability to lead dynamically and seek out innovative solutions, grantmakers across the country are getting in front of the age wave, so that seniors can continue to play their vital role in our shared prosperity.

John Feather, PhD, is Chief Executive Officer of Grantmakers In Aging

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