Respecting our elders: the Plough Foundation's Aging Initiative

For the first time in its 50-year history the Plough Foundation has put out a request for proposals. Through its Aging Initiative, Plough hopes to affect elder abuse and maltreatment, and promote "aging in place" by the senior citizens of Shelby County.
Katie Midgley, Program Associate for the Plough Foundation, was hired in 2011 to help figure out how the foundation might be more proactive in the funding area of aging.
 
"I think there were several reasons why aging was selected as our area, to really get our feet wet in being more proactive instead of reactive," she says. "Number one is because of the numbers. People are hearing a lot about baby boomers and the 'silver tsunami' and Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and what are we going to do about it?"
 
Midgley looked at past grants that Plough had awarded and saw an increase in funding related to aging.
 
"The numbers reiterated what our board already suspected. Memphis is no different than the rest of the country in that we are getting older and we will stay older, people are having fewer children and they're living longer, so that's really a population paradigm shift. I think that's why we selected this issue as a foundation."
 
As a result, the Plough Foundation Aging Initiative was created, and a request was put out for proposals among the area's non-profit organizations and public and private sectors. It is the foundation's first RFP in its 50-year history.
 
Plough completed more than 70 interviews of individuals and organizations with expertise in all aspects of aging, and commissioned a survey of more than 500 seniors aged 65 years old and up within Memphis and Shelby County. Based on the survey and in-house research on the topics of aging, two task groups were convened, one Aging in Place and Mobility and the other Elder Abuse and Maltreatment.
 
Finally, a speaker series was convened to educate the public. "We wanted to really sound an alarm bell," says Mike Carpenter, Executive Director of the Plough Foundation. "We wanted to end that (speaker series) with this call for proposals to say, 'We’ve rung the alarm bell, now we want to be partners with you in doing something about it.' This is a way for us to engage the not-for-profit community, because with the RFP we're able to be very specific about the kinds of things we're looking for, the kinds of things we're willing to fund. It has also allowed us to bring these interested groups to the table and have some pre-discussions about their ideas and to help direct them in ways that we've determined would be best for the community all around this issue."
 
The total grant amounts are being left open-ended, which is also a first for Plough. Not wanting to limit the focus on this complex issue is one reason. Another, Carpenter says, is that "We don't want to be put in a position where we get proposals that are maybe subpar and feel that we need to fund those to meet some arbitrary amount that we had set out. We feel like our commitment to this is going to be larger than any single grant that we've made in our history."
 
While the amount may not be written in stone, it is expected to be larger than the typical $12 to $13 million that Plough awards each year, an amount which won’t be affected by these grants.
 
Patti Tosti is a one-time social worker and current consultant with a background in elder and child abuse services now working with Plough to interview potential lead organizations to run the elder abuse program and to put together an implementation plan with the coordination of services. In an effort to make the complex issue of elder abuse more easily managed, she has broken it down into the focus areas of medical response, legal response, training and housing. Though these facets are more easily identifiable, however, Tosti points out that some, such as training, reach across all other areas. Others--like medical, for instance--need to be addressed around the clock.
 
"A big issue is that if a situation occurs in the middle of the night, the only two organizations that can respond are the police and the hospital," Tosti says. "So there's that consideration for the community to make sure that there's an advocacy aspect."
 
For prosecution to take place, whether the abuse is physical or financial, not only do incidences need to be reported, but evidence needs to be gathered at every stage along the timeline. Therefore, a chain may begin with the police, banker or forensic nurses and end with the district attorney and final justice for the victim or survivor.
 
"Even though I broke it into focus areas," she says, "they all are interconnected, and that's what we're talking about within the group. The coordinated community response, cross-collaboration, multi-disciplinary teams are working together for the same goal: to protect older adults in Shelby County is the aim."
 
"These aren't things that are real comfortable to hear about, but it's important that we face it," Tosti goes on to say. "Any of us could be in this situation, and it's important to make sure that we're protecting older individuals and giving them the respect and dignity they deserve."
 
When it comes to maintaining a certain amount of independence, senior citizens are looking to stay in their own homes, to "age in place" as long as possible. More than their own needs, many are caregivers to a spouse, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. And for many, their homes were purchased decades before a "grab bar" in a bathroom or a ramp to the front door were necessary. Grants from Plough will seek to identify and fund those companies willing to install such safety measures, as well as train those that wish to.
 
"Frequently, as happens with most folk, you get to a certain age and you're not going to be working anymore, or maybe not working full time, and so you're trying to maintain, on a fixed income, and so sometimes home maintenance is not at the top of the list," says Kathryn Coulter, Chief Development Officer for the Aging Commission of the Mid-South, an agency that has acted as a sounding board and liaison between Plough and the senior population. "And so trying to help people identify resources that are available to help them, and Plough offering to work with the community and see what they can do to offer some financial support for those changes, is a really, really needed and wonderful thing."
 
Also of importance to Midgley is that the elderly not only receive the help needed to survive, but also thrive and continue to lead the lives that they want to lead and are capable of leading. This includes getting out of the house when they want, taking classes, mentoring, exercising and volunteering in the community. As life expectancy lengthens, so does the opportunity for social and civic engagement.
 
"Just because you turn whatever magical age at which an individual retires does not mean that all your skills and abilities suddenly disappear," Coulter says. "Lots of folks have much to offer to the community, and whether they are able to remain employed part time or whether they become volunteers, the community benefits from having them remain engaged, and they benefit in that they remain in purposeful activity."
 
The implications of the grants and the collaborative efforts among agencies and organizations are far-reaching locally, and on a much larger stage, with national elder abuse experts around the country acting as technical assistance providers through the U.S. Department of Justice.
 
"This is really one of a kind," Tosti says. "As far as I understand, there's not another entity in the country that's putting so many resources and so much financial power to address this in a real cumulative way. So this is huge for Memphis, it's an honor by Plough and it could be used nationally and internationally."
 
June 15 is the deadline for concept letter submission, with funding to be completed by June 15, 2015. But that in no way marks the end of Plough's commitment to the issue.
 
"I don't think that even when this process is over we're out of the aging business, I think that this is an issue that we're not going to solve with one grant cycle, so we're going to have to continue to be engaged in that," Carpenter says. "But what we hope we do is that we have some sustainable projects, that we influence policy makers, at the local and state levels, to look at this issue more closely and invest some taxpayer funds into these issues as well."

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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