Respecting our elders: the Plough Foundation's Aging Initiative

With a ballooning elderly population and an overall lack of community services to address their unique needs, it was clear to the Plough Foundation something aggressive needed to be done. Through pioneering collaboration and vigorous investment from the Foundation, senior citizens in Shelby County are now getting the help they need.
Recognizing the the challenges associated with aging, Memphis' Plough Foundation has dedicated substantial human capital and other resources to address the aging population of Shelby County. 

"Memphis is no different than the rest of the nation in that we are getting older. People are having fewer children and they're living longer, so there's really a population paradigm shift," said Plough Foundation Executive Director Rick Masson. "Nationwide, less than two percent of philanthropic dollars go to support initiatives for older adults."

In an aggressive move to address this need, Plough has partnered with seven local non-profit organizations, giving over $12 million to programs focused on improving the lives of seniors.

"Our aging initiative programs are collaborative in nature, and it’s wonderful to partner with grantees who really embrace the importance of working together to serve our seniors," said Masson. "Each program has a built-in evaluation component, and we are really just beginning to hear about some of the great successes we are having in all kinds of areas, from improved socialization to nutritional status."

Aging Mastery
One of the programs serving the aging in Shelby County, Aging Mastery Program (AMP), was launched in the fall of 2015 through a partnership of Plough Foundation and The Works, Inc.,  along with the City of Memphis' Parks and Neighborhoods Division. Over 140 seniors have benefited from this continuing education program since.  

The 10 week AMP accommodates 25 participants for each session where students learn a variety of skills to improve their overall quality of life. The curriculum is used nationally and was developed by the National Council on Aging, based off of a program developed by the Girl Scouts of America to help young women transit into adulthood. Classes on topics such as fall prevention, sleep, and community engagement all encourage seniors to take actions to enhance their relationships and lives. 

AMP rotates between five community senior centers throughout the year insuring that location does not hinder participation. Each respective center offers their own electives such as yoga and Tai Chi beyond the core courses.  

"This program is unique nationally as well as locally," explains Curtis Thomas, Deputy Executive Director of The Works, Inc. "There are programs and seminars on aging offered at senior centers and churches but AMP does such a deep dive with its 10 classes, covering every facet of successful aging in modern America. The participants really get to know each other and it becomes a place of trust which results in some really involved, deep conversations that typically wouldn't take place in a one time class. We also deal with issues that typically would not be covered in a single class."
Rick Masson
Thomas explained how aging people do not have role models for living a long life. "People are living so much longer and working longer, it's so much different than it was even 20 years ago and everyone is forced to just learn as they go. And we have the opportunity to fill some of those gaps with knowledge that people didn't have before."

Seniors learn sensitive topics such as how to reconstruct their social networks and how to have difficult conversations with family members. "For instance, your grandson approaches you and wants you to take money of your retirement account so he can purchase a car. You really can't afford to do that so how do you navigate that conversation?" asks Thomas. "We cover a wide range of issues that people need to think about."

The Aging Mastery Program will wrap in December of 2017.

Aging in Place 
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis along with Memphis Light Gas and Water and Service Over Self are partnering for the Aging in Place program, which helps low income seniors in Shelby County live in their own homes longer. Aging in Place provides home repairs, mobility modifications, accessibility improvements, and weatherization to keep seniors' homes safe and liveable. 

President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis Dwayne Spencer said of the program, "Aging in Place is a natural extension of Habitat's mission. We believe that everyone deserves a decent, affordable place to live – whether they be first-time homebuyers purchasing their first homes with our affordable mortgages, or longtime homeowners who simply don’t have the means to maintain their homes." 

While Habitat for Humanity was working to repair homes in Memphis' Uptown Neighborhood they realized that most of the homeowners they were serving were senior citizens. "That was really an 'Aha!' moment," explained Spencer. "That existing program experience put us in a unique position to establish our formal program, which is a true blessing to hundreds of seniors in Shelby County who by no other means would have been able to make necessary repairs and modifications to their homes."

The income based program is open for Shelby County residents aged 60 or over with current or no mortgages on their homes who are up to date on their property taxes. The services Aging in Place provides are a grant requiring no repayment unless the home is sold or ownership changes within five years following the improvements. $12,500 is the average cost of repairs and each home is assessed on a case-by-case basis.

"We’re living in a time where soon there will be more seniors than there are people under 15," said Spencer. "A time when we’re all living longer, with life expectancy now at 77 years. Because of this — coupled with an aging stock of houses and very low fixed incomes — there exists a large sub-group of seniors who need our help so they can remain in their own homes and be as independent as possible. That is what we’re striving to do every day, and I’m so proud of this initiative.”

No Hungry Senior 
MIFA has long provided Meals on Wheels for homebound seniors, but thanks to the Plough's Aging Initiative they were able to launch their No Hungry Senior (NHS) program in 2015 to further assist the more than 17,000 food insecure seniors in Shelby County. No Hungry Senior is a collaborative effort led by MIFA along several other local partners including Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, The Memphis Jewish Federation, and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. The program targets Shelby County seniors who are at the greatest risk for hunger due to to illness and infirmity.

The first year NHS was able to serve 474 new clients with home delivered meals, and in 2016 they're aiming to add 1,500 new clients to the program. Participants in No Hungry Senior are referred from local hospitals or the Aging Commission of the Mid-South. Each referral receives an in-home assessment from MIFA to determine their food needs. Volunteers deliver hot meals daily, Monday through Friday; as well as weekly shelf-stable boxes containing seven meals, and a 22-lb grocery box delivered monthly.

NHS not only provides food for seniors in need, it also breaks up the isolation experienced by many home-bound seniors. "The work of No Hungry Senior is bringing us new insights, but we already know this: the nutritious meal and the visit of a volunteer are life-changing," explains Trina Jones, MIFA's VP of Senior Programs. "Through just an hour or two of service a week, we can show our respect and gratitude to the generations who have raised us. Those connections elevate our entire community."  
Plough's aging initiative is receiving national attention, with staff presenting at three national conferences this year beginning with the National Adult Protective Services Association Conference in Philadelphia this month. "To us, it is incredibly important to honor our greatest generation," said Masson. 

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Amy Hoyt is High Ground News' Community Engagement Specialist, which suits her love of Memphis and its inhabitants.