From millage to intergenerational programs, Ypsi organizations prepare for coming senior boom

More Americans will turn 65 this year than any other year in history. Here's how Ypsi senior services organizations are planning to respond to a growing population of older adults.
Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels (YMOW) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, even as more Americans turn 65 than any other year in history.

Further, nearly one in four Michigan residents will be 60 or older by 2030, and by 2040, the number of Washtenaw County seniors living in poverty will more than double, according to statistics from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF). 

YMOW, the Ypsilanti Senior Center, and other Ypsi-area organizations are strategizing for this demographic shift in a variety of ways, from advocating for a millage dedicated to senior services to empowering seniors to make healthier choices.
An intergenerational chess event at the Ypsilanti Senior Center.
Changing demographics, changing strategies

Already, the average YMOW client is 73 years old, with an income of less than $1,000 per month. 93% of YMOW clients qualify as low-income (defined as making less than 200% of the national poverty rate). That means an increase in older adults needing services is likely to swamp nonprofits like YMOW if they're not planning ahead.

Further, YMOW Development and Marketing Manager Danni Murphy notes that both the cost to produce meals and the number of clients seeking services have gone up consistently for Meals on Wheels programs across the U.S. since 2020. A survey of regional Meals on Wheels organizations found that a majority were considering cutbacks, waiting lists, and other cost-saving measures.

Murphy says YMOW is adapting by taking the focus off throwing "one big, swanky party," as many organizations would do for a 50th anniversary, and instead focusing on several smaller "boots on the ground" engagements with the community over the course of 2024. Murphy says YMOW did that already to some extent during the city of Ypsilanti's bicentennial celebrations last year.

YMOW will host "Lemonade Lane'' pop-ups at various community festivities from Independence Day to Pride and Juneteenth, offering water and lemonade for free or by donation.

"We want to get out into Ypsilanti where the community is already celebrating and spread our mission awareness, and maybe get some new volunteers out of it," Murphy says. 

Empowering seniors to improve their own health

Jeff Tritten, president of the nonprofit Washtenaw Optimal Wellness, says his organization's focus is on "empowering seniors to prevent or reverse chronic diseases." Tritten says WOW has several partnerships in the works with other nonprofits, like the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council and possibly a government agency, to address that growing senior need. He says WOW staff and their partners are looking at the social determinants of health and seeing where they can make a difference. WOW might not be able to boost anyone's income, but Tritten says it can advocate for policy change that makes healthy food more accessible, for instance.

WOW also sponsors health literacy programs, like a program the organization ran at the Ypsilanti Senior Center that taught participants how to read labels, cook healthy on a budget, and identify cheaper, in-season ingredients. 

Tritten says making sure communities are walkable is another priority.

"We need to make sure people can walk to the grocery store, or if they're frail and elderly, that transportation is available," Tritten says. 

He notes that the New West Willow Neighborhood Association and the Community Family Life Center in Ypsi Township's Sugarbrook neighborhood have gardening programs, but Tritten says he'd like to see more efforts to address food deserts.

"It would be so nice if I had a budget to rely on."

Monica Prince, director of the Ypsilanti Senior Center, says that what her organization really needs is consistent funding.

She says she and others have been going to county commission meetings and warning the county about the need to prepare for the senior boom, but she's "not sure they're paying attention."
Monica Prince.
"There was a time I went before the commissioners and said, 'Listen, in 2030, which is not that far away, there will be more seniors in Washtenaw County than kids under 18,'" Prince says.

She says that the majority of funds disbursed by the county through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) or other programs typically goes to young people 18 and under. Prince says that's great, but she's concerned about the portion of funding that has been allocated to seniors. The county's first two packages of ARPA spending did not include programming specific to older adults; up to $4 million of the third and most recent package, totalling $30.2 million in spending, is dedicated to support for seniors. Prince worries that local and county governments aren't "looking forward and viewing the population changing."

"There's also an impression that seniors are just a deficit," Prince says. "People think they retire and then they need stuff, and that's just not true."

Prince notes that retired people often keep communities running by staffing polling locations for voters and other volunteer gigs, from delivering meals to staffing a nonprofit thrift store.

Prince and others are backing a proposed Say Yes To Seniors! millage. She and other senior center staffers are preparing for a meeting in February that will bring together local leaders and seniors to discuss the proposed millage and talk about why it's needed.

"We want to present to the public the fact of this growing number of seniors and that the best way we see of getting things moving is to have a senior millage," Prince says. "What we need is consistent money. It would be so nice if I had a budget to rely on."

Intergenerational community building

Beyond advocating for a millage, both YMOW and the senior center are working to build community support for older adults through intergenerational relationships.

For instance, Murphy says YMOW will supplement its usual "Pie Day'' event March 14 with a livestream Dungeons and Dragons game. YMOW is also adding a breakfast event aimed at children and families to its annual Wonderland Ball. 

"We're trying to engage with a new, younger demographic," Murphy says. 
An intergenerational chess event at the Ypsilanti Senior Center.
Prince says the senior center is taking a similar tack, hosting intergenerational programming from paper-making workshops to chess games. This programming has been funded by sources including the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and Generations United through Eastern Michigan University's Intergenerational Community Solutions Institute, ARPA money, and a grant from the AAACF. 

Prince says intergenerational programming isn't always about older people teaching the younger.

"In fact, I had one of the seniors say to me, 'I've got to practice more. Those kids whipped me last week,'" Prince says. 

Intergenerational programming not only brings in potential new volunteers, donors, and millage supporters, but contributes to "community building," Prince says.

Tritten notes that social isolation has always been a problem for seniors, and that's only gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We want to build a culture of health, to get people together to do physical activity like walking in the neighborhood or playing pickleball," Tritten says. "That social isolation hit hard during the pandemic, so a focus on some type of group exercise activity is a good plan."
An intergenerational chess event at the Ypsilanti Senior Center.
Prince believes that governments and communities need to start preparing for the changing demographics now, so helping younger generations understand issues related to the senior boom is key.

"We're going for more intergenerational activities because building that bond between generations is the only way I can see things are going to change," Prince says. 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Chess photos by David Lewinski. Monica Prince photo by Doug Coombe.
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