A Funder Looks for Scalable Tactics to Fight Poverty and Social Isolation Among the Elderly

photo:  Kwan Kajornsiri/shutterstock

photo:  Kwan Kajornsiri/shutterstock

America is getting older. The number of Americans over 64 is projected to more than double by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau. At that level, older Americans would make up almost 24 percent of the country’s population, compared to 15 percent now. Aging is not a top priority area for many funders, but maybe at those rates, it should be.

The philanthropic arm of the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP Foundation, is one funder stepping up to the task.

The foundation is looking for effective ways to reach low-income, vulnerable older adults and increase their economic opportunities and social connectedness. The goal of a set of recently announced grants is to find independently evaluated, scalable methods to achieve these goals. Projects should focus on one of four interrelated areas, hunger, income, housing and isolation, said Matthew D’Amico, the foundation’s grant program officer.

Reducing poverty among the elderly has been one of the great success stories of social policy in recent times. The poverty rate for older Americans is much lower than it was 50 years ago, according to the Population Reference Bureau. The rate dropped to 10 percent from almost 30 percent back in 1966.

But there are ominous signs that some of this progress could slip away. An alarming share of Americans approaching retirement age has almost no savings, and in coming years, the screws are likely to tighten on federal entitlement programs that benefit seniors. Medicaid just narrowly escaped major cuts that would have badly hurt older Americans as part of proposed repeals of Obamacare. Meanwhile, major disparities exist among seniors, with older African American and Latino people twice as likely to live in poverty than older whites. There’s still work to be done.

As you might guess, helping the elderly is what the philanthropic arm of the AARP is all about. In the past, the foundation has focused on housing as a way to combat poverty for the elderly, as we’ve reported. This round of grants would expand beyond that area, though housing security will remain a focus for the foundation, D’Amico said.

The foundation is looking for national and regional partners, which is notable because much of the work being done for older Americans is focused on tightly defined geographic areas. Additionally, a lot of this work seems more focused on the social connectedness, rather than the economic security of the elderly.

Los Angeles seems to be a hub for giving that centers on the elderly. The L.A.-based John Gogian Family Foundation counts the elderly as one of its causes and maintains a narrow focus on work it can do within its city.

The Eisner Foundation, overseen by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his family, also focuses on the elderly. The foundation is a big funder behind intergenerational initiatives, connecting disadvantaged kids with socially isolated elderly people. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is trying something similar, but with a twist, in Pittsburgh. Through AgeWell, the public health funder employs active older adults to visit older, frailer seniors at home. The program provides frailer seniors with social contact and health monitoring, while giving younger, more active seniors a sense of purpose, said Karabi Acharya, a RWJF director. The method was adapted from a project in South Africa as part of the foundation’s global ideas effort, which we’ve reported on.

RWJF is a huge foundation, the fourth largest in the country, and other funders are piloting the model in New York and Cincinnati. But AARP remains unusual in its willingness to tackle these issues on a national and regional scale.