03/17/2009 - The Philadelphia region is old, and not just because of its long history. Its substantial population of more than 535,000 elderly individuals accounts for one of every seven residents. According to a 2003 study by the Brookings Institution, Philadelphia ranks second only to Miami among 23 U.S. cities in the proportion of residents 65 and older. A large segment of the area’s elderly face economic hardship, isolation, and health and mobility challenges that seriously compromise their quality of life. Almost one fifth of Philadelphia’s older adults live at or below the federal poverty level—$10,400 for an individual. Approximately 170,000 seniors in the region, almost one third, live alone, and 37 percent report having a chronic health problem. Increasingly, elderly people are choosing to remain in their communities, rather than move to nursing homes; however, they struggle to cobble together the services they need to maintain their independence and well being. Similarly, service providers are facing significant pressures as they seek to meet increasing demands from a population with more complex needs in a time of constrained funding and an uncertain economy.
The current Pew Fund elderly cycle that began in March 2009 comprises 32 grants, funded at a level of $4,349,000 over three years. Consistent with the goal of the Pew Fund, all of the awards will offer services to enable poor, frail elderly to remain in their homes for as long as possible. These services, organized around five objectives, are often the difference between the ability to live in a safe and secure home environment and placement in a nursing home.
The first objective focuses on helping elderly individuals to understand and obtain available public benefits. These benefits, which include food stamps, tax rebates, home-based health care, utility discounts and prescription drugs, are key to the financial stability of many seniors; however, they often involve complicated application procedures and, as a result, the effort to qualify for these can be daunting. The second objective focuses on significant issues that are threats to many seniors: the loss of their homes as a result of unpaid taxes or fraudulent lending schemes, and the physical disrepair of their residences, which can jeopardize their safety.
About 43,000 seniors in the region suffer from a diagnosed mental health condition, including depression, yet less than half are receiving treatment. Many elderly assume that their mental health issues are an unavoidable consequence of aging, and therefore do not seek out treatment. Still others are unable to locate on their own reliable and affordable services. The third objective provides for services such as friendly visiting and peer support groups that have proven track records in relieving anxiety and social isolation that are often the precursors of depression. For those who exhibit serious mental health symptoms, geriatric professionals will offer intensive counseling, often involving the education and training of informal caregivers. Approximately 65,000 seniors in the region have difficulty carrying out basic self-care functions such as eating, bathing and dressing; and many others cannot perform routine household activities like grocery shopping or getting to the bank and medical appointments. The aim of the fourth objective is to offer personal care and other supportive services to help these individuals with their daily tasks. Finally, in recognition of the significant caregiving role of family members, the fifth objective supports respite, adult day care and other services to relieve the physical and emotional toll upon this group.
Many of the funded organizations rely on volunteers who bring diverse talents and significant commitments of their time to support their elderly neighbors. Moreover, these agencies are distinguished by their compassionate staff, successful track records and ability to make a meaningful difference for those they serve.
Frazierita D. Klasen
Director, Pew Fund for Health and Human Services in Philadelphia
Deputy Director, Philadelphia Program
Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2009 (PDF).