Have We Forgotten About Our Nation’s Seniors?

3 min
November 10, 2016

While the number of seniors in America is growing dramatically, the amount of charitable giving to this increasingly vulnerable population has remained roughly the same for each of the last 20 years. It is truly a travesty that each year less than two percent of all philanthropic dollars go toward helping older Americans age in place with access to high-quality and affordable health and social support services. We must do better.

How could we let this happen when millions of seniors across the country, especially those living on fixed incomes, are forced to choose between food, medicine and shelter? What’s more, many must navigate a complex health and social support system that is not currently scaled or structured to meet the needs of a growing aging population.

Out of 105,000 private, nonprofit foundations in America, only a few are dedicated solely to addressing the needs of older adults. Recently, I talked to several leaders in aging to get their perspectives on the importance of philanthropy, and asked why so few charitable dollars are focused on seniors. Here’s what they had to say:

“The need is so large that many feel their philanthropy won’t make a difference,” said John Feather, Ph.D., CEO, Grantmakers in Aging , a leading national association of charitable foundations and corporate giving programs which works to improve the lives of older adults. “However, a society that is better for older adults is better for people of all ages, and philanthropy can — and does — play an important role.”

“I believe ageism is at the root of why more philanthropic dollars are not dedicated to older adults,” said Laura Rath, MSG, Senior Program Officer, Archstone Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that has awarded more than $102 million in grants to help meet the needs of an aging population. “Also, a confounding problem is viewing aging as a zero-sum game, where if one gains, another must lose. Improving the lives of older adults has the potential to improve society in general.”

“Philanthropy often serves as a catalyst in bringing attention to less visible but increasingly important challenges facing our communities,” said Ann Monroe, Chair of the Board of Directors, Grantmakers in Aging. “From the increasing economic and medical pressure on family caregivers to the lack of strong social policies supporting healthy aging, philanthropy has the flexibility and resources to develop new models of care and drive the public and policy discussions needed to support successful and respectful aging.”

“Now is the time for philanthropy to move our country forward by investing in strategies that enable every older adult in America to age with dignity and respect we all deserve,” said Mary O’ Donnell, Senior Program Officer, The Retirement Research Foundation, a private foundation that has awarded more than $200 million in grants to improve the quality of life for our nation’s older adults.

This week, the Gary and Mary West Foundation celebrates its 10-year anniversary. As CEO and president of this foundation, I have seen firsthand the power of philanthropy in kick-starting and shining a light on innovative models of care for seniors from geriatric emergency departments and senior dental centers to aging in place programs, and senior wellness centers that offer health, wellness, social support services and nutritious meals every single day of the year. We’ve awarded over $175 million to 181 grant recipients who are making a real difference in the lives of seniors everywhere. And, we have only just begun. Our founders, pioneering philanthropists Gary and Mary West, have dedicated their lives – and their fortune – to enabling successful aging for vulnerable seniors.

The Gary and Mary West Foundation, Archstone Foundation and The Retirement Research Foundation represent the handful of foundations focused solely on aging. Others include The John A. Hartford FoundationH.W. Durham FoundationThe Scan Foundation and Isaac H. Tuttle Fund.

But, this small group of foundations simply cannot do it alone. This is the one time I wish we weren’t so unique in our laser focus on seniors. We’re trying to serve as a catalyst for philanthropists and other foundations to get involved, come up with new solutions, and raise awareness about the critical issues facing our seniors. Seniors are our parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, neighbors and our veterans. They deserve our best thinking, our utmost respect and greater attention from our nation’s philanthropists and foundations that have the power to galvanize and create a better place for the seniors who taught us, cared for us, fought for us and now count on us.


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Shelley Lyford
CEO, Chair & Trustee, Gary and Mary West Foundation
CEO & Chair, West Health Institute