Why a Foundation Wants to Help Low-Income Seniors Stay Put as They Age

Jessie Eldora Robertson/shutterstock

Jessie Eldora Robertson/shutterstock

Last month, the Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation announced a $3 million gift to expand a program that helps low-income seniors stay in their homes and communities. The five-year grant is intended to scale the program, which works in 25 communities in 12 states, to the national level.

Hillman’s grant to Community Aging in Place–Advancing Better for Living (CAPABLE) is a significant gift to a field that often goes overlooked by philanthropy, despite the growing number of elderly in the United States.

The number of Americans over 65 grew to 49.2 million last year, up from 35 million in 2000. The number is expected to double by 2060. Many of those heading into old age have little in the way of savings and pensions, and are likely to be more socially isolated than previous generations of seniors. Also, compared to their peers in other countries, older Americans tend to be sicker and have less access to care, according to a Commonwealth Fund-supported study.

Despite that, elder care is a low priority for most funders. John Feather, the CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, describes the attitude among philanthropists as, “Children are an investment; older people are an expense.”

“While people wouldn’t say it as bluntly as that, we see it all the time,” Feather said, speaking to Inside Philanthropy about the field last year. “It’s not that older people’s programs are bad, it’s just that, you know, there’s not return on that investment like there is if you do early childhood development programs for kids.”

Related: It's a Coming Tsunami. Which Funders Are Confronting an Aging America?

Hillman’s recent gift to CAPABLE is an exception to prevailing funder priorities. The program is led by Sarah Szanton, who developed it in collaboration with colleagues, including Laura Gitlin at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

The program attacks the challenge of low-income senior housing from a few angles to make it easier for them to stay in their homes and communities, and live with a greater degree of independence. To achieve this, the program brings in handymen to make seniors’ houses safer and more accessible. It also brings in nurses and occupational therapists to increase elderly residents’ mobility, decrease disability and lower healthcare costs.

Szanton’s previous work as a nurse practitioner, during which she served low-income housebound seniors in Baltimore, inspired the program. It was then she observed that for the elderly, especially those hoping to remain in their communities and avoid nursing homes, challenges in the built environment were often as serious as health issues.

Feather weighed in on the grant, praising CAPABLE’s multifaceted approach: “Certainly, this is a very important program, because it tries to address the needs of people living in the community in a broad way.”

“Everyone knows that’s what everyone wants—to thrive in a community as we age,” Feather said. “But sadly, that’s not what the system allows.”

Feather also said that this gift came at a crucial time, as the program has moved past the pilot phase. “This kind of funding is important, because it allows us to see what the program looks like if it moves to scale.”

The Hillman Foundation has supported CAPABLE through earlier stages of its development. The foundation is known for its work to support nursing, which appears to be the connection, here.

In life, Alex and Rita Hillman, the couple whose fortune endowed the foundation, was famous for their extensive art collection. The collection later helped fund their philanthropic work. Rita took over the family foundation after her husband’s death in the 1960s.

In 1989, she survived a serious illness and came away from the experience with a deep respect for nurses. That year, she sold a Picasso painting for $17 million and put the proceeds toward nursing education. Rita died in 2007, but the foundation continues her support of nurses.

There are a few foundations dedicated to care for the elderly. The John A. Hartford Foundation in Connecticut, and the Archstone Foundation and Gary and Mary West Foundation, both in California, are among the few funders that focus exclusively on elder care. The AARP Foundation also focuses its giving on older Americans. Much of that work is to keep housing affordable for seniors, though the foundation branched out into social isolation more recently. The Tufts Health Plan Foundation is another funder of aging programs as part of a broader grantmaking agenda, with particular focus of creating age-friendly communities in the Northeast.

Those funders who do work in this space find support in the affinity group Grantmakers in Aging. John Feather says the group is pushing for more funders to include consideration for the elderly in areas where they already support work—whether that’s housing, health or transportation. It can be an easier sell than convincing a foundation to go all-in on programming that focuses exclusively on seniors.