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Older Adults are a Critical Asset to Building Healthy Communities – A Call for an Intersectional Approach

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Andrew Levack, MPH, Senior Program Officer for Healthy Aging, St. David’s Foundation

I work for a foundation that invests in the needs of highly vulnerable, home-bound older adults in Central Texas. While Austin is widely-viewed as a young city, its metropolitan area has the second fastest growing older adult population in the nation (Brookings Institution 2011). St. David’s Foundation considers the well-being of older adults as a fundamental aspect to our goal of building the healthiest community in the world. However, for many donors, supporting older adults is not a funding priority. Approximately two percent of American institutional philanthropy (primarily private foundations, but other funding groups as well) contribute resources to aging programs (The Foundation Center 2014). This dynamic exists despite evidence that, over the next 40 years, the United States will experience unprecedented growth in its older population. In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double the estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012. (U.S. Census Bureau 2014). By 2035, for the first time in U.S. history, older adults will outnumber children, and that disparity will only grow in subsequent decades.

While the demographic shifts justify a call for new investments in aging, there is a legitimate concern that shifting resources to older adults will result in a zero-sum gain. Reality is it would be unrealistic to expect most foundations to reallocate investments from children to older adults. A more compelling alternative has been offered by John Feather, President of Grantmakers In Aging, who suggests that “we must help funders to understand aging in a variety of contexts by demonstrating the connection to other work in which they already engage.” (American Society on Aging 2015). This perspective argues for incorporating an intersectional approach to grantmaking that supports multiple generations rather than a focused, siloed approach to addressing aging.

Intergenerational Activities

So how could a foundation implement an “intersectional approach” among the different populations it serves? The opportunities are nearly limitless when we consider opportunities for supporting intergenerational interventions that benefit different populations through a reciprocal relationship. In many cases, such programs provide older adults with an opportunity to support children and young adults through some form of volunteer or paid service. Such programs mobilize older adults as community assets, and in doing so reduces social isolation, prevents depression, increases physical activity, and ultimately improves overall health. Some examples of intergenerational interventions include engaging older adults as mentors in early reading programs with children, teachers in literacy programs for English language learners, and supporters of teen parents and their children. But there are countless more opportunities once you consider the possibilities.

Recently, St. David's Foundation adopted a new strategic focus on mitigating childhood adversity. The scientific research of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has shown that neglectful or abusive experiences at a young age damage the structure of the brain, which can lead to health problems later in life. To mitigate this, evidence shows that we can create supportive stimulating environments that build strong, resilient brains. A critical factor in that stimulating environment is an adult who can engage in quality time with a child. These basic interactions are called “serve and return” because the back-and-forth nature of interaction is like a tennis match. Our foundation began to consider how older adults could help vulnerable children in this regard. This strategy has been adopted by leading organizations, such as the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, which has promoted recruiting older adults for this purpose through public service with the tag line “Building Brains is Child’s Play.” This approach engages older adults as critical assets for improving child development, while also promoting rewarding engagement that will benefit older adults as well.

Shared Sites for Maximum Impact

Some of the most innovative examples of intergenerational programming involve different generations sharing sites that deliver services. In West Seattle, the Mount St. Vincent Home is a living care community for over 400 older adults. Housed within “The Mount” is the Intergenerational Learning Center for preschool students where both planned and spontaneous activities occur between children and residents throughout the building. The unique contribution of this program will be featured in the upcoming documentary film Present Perfect. It has also inspired St. David's Foundation to explore new opportunities to potentially house Head Start centers within low-income senior housing developments.

Affordable housing is a critical issue that presents opportunities for innovative solutions by bringing generations together. Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon combines affordable housing for the adoptive families of foster children and adults aged 55 or older. The community is built to maximize social connectedness and enhance child development. In return for reduced rents, each older adult spends 100 hours per quarter performing volunteer activities that range from taking care of children while their adoptive parents are at work to tutoring students after school.

In another affordable housing innovation, New York University recently launched the “home stay” program, which allows students to live in the spare bedrooms of local older adult citizens and thus cut their housing bill in half. Older adult residents also receive a financial benefit for hosting the student. This innovation is particularly interesting in college cities like Austin that are experiencing unsustainable increases in the cost of housing. However, the greatest benefit is often the close relationships, basic supports, intergenerational exchanges, and social connections that occur organically between housemates.

Age-Friendly Communities – The Next Frontier

As we seek to improve community health by reaching multiple generations, the new movement of “Age-Friendly Communities” provides a unique opportunity. Austin is one of many U.S. cities working towards this goal, and the first city in Texas to receive approval from the World Health Organization for its age-friendly action plan. Austin’s vision is a livable community designed with all residents in mind, from the very young to older adults. To achieve this, action plans have been implemented for areas that influence quality of life including transportation, housing, employment, social participation. These social determinants of health are equally important to the well-being of children, working families, and older adults. As we address these issues throughout our community, our aging community will prosper along with all other residents.

This essay was originally published in Grantmakers in Health "Views from the Field"

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