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rawpixel/shutterstock

Sometimes it takes a crisis to put a spotlight on things. A disease that doesn’t recognize borders does recognize one thing: age. And it’s laid bare the unique vulnerabilities of an aging U.S. population, from health and hunger to social isolation.

The demographics all point the same way: up. Thirty-four percent of the U.S. population is over 50, and the numbers are expected to swell by more than 30 million in the next two decades. Ten thousand baby boomers turn 65 every day.

Why, then, has such a small percentage of philanthropy historically been directed at supporting older Americans? According to John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging (GIA), that number has been stuck at around 2% of giving for the past 25 years. True, funding data is hard to pin down, often falling under the general heading of vulnerable populations, or referenced sideways through single illnesses like Alzheimer’s. But all things considered, this should be a much bigger focus area for the sector.

Feather suspects that the reason may be rooted in stigma. No one wants to see themselves as old, not even the baby boomers who were supposed to transform what it means to be a senior citizen.

But the virus has its own definition. New York State fatalities start rocketing upward at 50. And provisional data from the CDC shows a marked uptick in the number of COVID-19 deaths beginning with the 45 to 54 cohort. From there, numbers more or less double with each group to age 74, then rises steadily by 20%.

Funders looking to remedy this shortfall can draw insights from these three organizations:

Grantmakers in Aging (GIA)

John Feather leads Grantmakers in Aging, a national membership organization that grew out of a pre-conference networking event at the Council on Foundation’s annual conference in 1992. What started as an informal group of program officers collaborating on senior services incorporated in 2000, and today counts 122 member philanthropies that take on broader issues of aging, like isolation.

Asked why the majority of COVID-19 funding aimed at seniors seems centered on food insecurity programs, Feather said it’s only natural to stick with well-established systems of known networks when addressing acute needs. Following that, he’s seen GIA’s membership of mostly private philanthropies generally stay local, shoring up community connections to meet local priorities, and helping partners to accelerate grants and ease restrictions on grantees.

Several members have made grants to help older citizens stay valued, recognized and engaged during the pandemic. For example, the Eisner Foundation, started in 1996 by then-Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, followed its mission of uniting multiple generations by establishing a $500,000 rapid-response fund to combat social isolation for seniors. And the San Francisco-based Metta Fund created a $200,000 rapid-response fund that can quickly deploy resources to nonprofit partners meeting the acute needs of older adults.

Now that the realization’s setting in that pandemic-related needs may continue for years—while upending care paradigms—Feather describes GIA’s membership as “taking a pause” to carefully consider next steps.

National Council on Aging (NCOA) 

The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is a national charitable organization that works to help people aged 60 and above respond to the challenges of aging through advocacy efforts, and by developing partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and government. Traffic on its website doubled when the pandemic hit, as even healthy, active older adults started succumbing, and the community searched for trusted information.

NCOA conducted a survey on how COVID-19 impacted the ability of more than 1,000 community-based organizations to serve older adults, revealing challenges from picking up groceries to staying connected while physically distancing. Bridging the gap through technology also threw up roadblocks. Just 39% of the seniors surveyed said they were comfortable using the internet. Less than 40% owned a home tablet or computer.

Toward the end of April, the organization responded by launching a COVID-19 Community Response Fund. The fund will allow community-based organizations to provide services for sheltering in place, adapt to virtual programming, and drive awareness for healthcare and relief programs. It’s targeting underserved populations in terms of gender, income, geography and sexuality—and the chances of being admitted to high-risk environments like hospitals and nursing homes.

Ken Bracht, chief marketing and business development officer, says that the decision to invest in community-based organizations like senior centers and benefits counseling agencies recognizes their pivotal role on the pandemic’s front lines: “Day in, day out, direct service providers are delivering food, providing mental health counseling, enrolling people into critical benefits programs, and connecting seniors with virtual programming to combat social isolation.”

AARP Foundation

The AARP Foundation is the philanthropic affiliate of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a membership organization of 38 million that works to empower adults over 50 to “live as they choose as they age.” Its mission is to help vulnerable people aged 50-plus build social connectedness and access economic opportunity.

To combat COVID-19, the foundation established a fund to help especially at-risk seniors, and teamed up with the United Health Foundation, which committed $5 million to support seniors experiencing isolation and food insecurity. The support was part of United Health Foundation’s overall initial investment of $70 million to help impacted populations.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, reports that funding has sped the delivery of nearly 800,000 meals to vulnerable adults in its programs. It’s also allowed the foundation to enhance its Connect2Affect program, which helps older adults build social connections to reduce the negative impacts of isolation. Ryerson says, “This pandemic has further imperiled the health, safety and well-being of millions of already marginalized low-income older adults,” and that issues of social isolation, food insecurity and financial health that existed even before the crisis will “continue during our long period of recovery.”

Other corporate foundations have also stepped up. Cambia Health reports directing $1.78 million of its COVID-19 response to programs and services that support older populations, including Sounds Generation, which uses technology to help seniors stay connected. And Eastern Bank committed a half-million dollars to organizations that help older Americans adjust to new circumstances, establish food security, find work and relieve social isolation.

As the number of people over 60 ticks up to 90 million by 2020, all Americans—but especially funders—should question the ideas of which parts of society are expendable, and what supporting older populations should look like. Because if all goes well, we’re all headed in the same direction.

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