Vera, an 86-year-old Washtenaw County resident, fell because she thought she could walk a short distance without her walker. The fall made her reconsider whether assisted living might be a better option than her own home. Now, Vera doesn't shower when she is home alone for fear of falling.
Like Vera, the struggle to find a safe home is one of many obstacles aging adults face. Vera's story is described in the qualitative study, Vulnerable Older Adults and Caregivers in Washtenaw County, conducted for the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF).
According to U.S. Census predictions, the number of adults over 60 in Washtenaw County will more than double to 110,000 by 2040, meaning the number of seniors in poverty is likely to increase to about 9,000. With this growing senior population, AAACF is taking proactive steps to address senior residents' needs.
Earlier this year, AAACF established the $18 million Glacier Hills Legacy Fund to support vulnerable seniors in Washtenaw County and their caregivers. With this fund, the foundation's committee wanted to spark innovation in Washtenaw County's senior-serving nonprofits. And so the Vital Seniors Competition was born, encouraging organizations to submit proposals to help older adults and their caregivers.
"A large focus and goal of this competition is enabling seniors to age with dignity," says AAACF CEO Neel Hajra. "The other focus area is caring for caregivers. The vast majority (of caregiving) is being done by friends and families. An important question we needed to pose is: who is taking care of the caregivers?"
The competition was funded in part by the Glacier Hills Legacy Fund, with an additional $500,000 provided by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. It began with over 40 applicants, but was narrowed down to 10 finalists. Each finalist received a coach and $20,000 of support, and created a video to show how their plan would impact the community.
On Nov. 13, the AAACF selection committee announced the competition winners. Area Agency on Aging 1-B (AAA 1-B) received the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation Caregiver prize of $250,000, and Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels (YMOW) in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley received the grand prize of $500,000.
Caring for caregivers
AAA 1-B is a nonprofit organization serving older adults and people with disabilities in six counties, including Washtenaw.
AAA 1-B’s proposal takes a comprehensive approach with 12 initiatives to connect caregivers to a variety of services and support. Jim McGuire, AAA 1-B's director of research, policy development, and advocacy, says the organization hopes to provide more caregiver support with resources such as a caregiver hotline, legal education, or adult daycare.
The majority of the 12 initiatives involve expanding on existing programs, but the team also hopes to increase awareness of the struggles caregivers face. AAA 1-B proposes to establish caregiver-friendly employment practices so family caregivers can successfully combine their job and caregiving responsibilities.
"The more support, breaks, and answers to questions we can provide, the longer they can sustain their giving and the less they'll depend on tax dollars," McGuire says. "This all helps us better manage the aging population."
Most seniors' No. 1 request is to stay in their home, McGuire says. AAA 1-B's goal is to increase the time seniors spend under their family's care at home so families can avoid expensive nursing homes.
Chris Lemon, senior community investment officer for AAACF, says he is especially excited about the awareness AAA 1-B will build for the aging population and their caregivers' needs.
Keeping seniors comfortable
Also striving to keep seniors in their own homes, YMOW in partnership with Habitat Huron Valley received the competition's grand prize of $500,000 for their proposal of implementing a Community Aging in Place - Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program.
John Hopkins School of Nursing developed the CAPABLE program for low-income seniors to age safely in their homes. Participating seniors are supported by a team of a nurse, a handyman, a social worker, and an occupational therapist.
"The program model is based on the senior, what they want out of it, and to help with their function rather than the disease," says YMOW executive director Alison Foreman. "CAPABLE has a high focus on fall prevention since one in four seniors on average experience a fall that has a significant impact on their life."
YMOW began implementing small home modifications into its work last year based on the CAPABLE program. After successful implementations and positive feedback from clients, YMOW partnered with Habitat Huron Valley for the Vital Seniors Competition to continue adding home modifications and other CAPABLE components into their programs.
Foreman says the organization's next step is to identify Ypsilanti seniors who would benefit from the program and begin the process of assessing how a CAPABLE team can address their needs.
For AAACF, this competition and its winners are just the start of a new perspective in Washtenaw County.
"We're hoping to continue to learn and implement (these findings), so organizations can grow and adapt," Lemon says. "In the end, it's going to be a transformative community shift."
Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.