Innovation in Aging Services, Part 1
When we think of innovation, we often think of new technology. This is true of just about every field, including aging services. There are plenty of technological advances in aging services: Remote monitoring systems that can tell a family caregiver a thousand miles away when Mom has gotten out of bed, gone into the bathroom, or opened the refrigerator door. Medicine dispensers that remind people when to take their pills. Internet-connected medical devices that can send blood pressure readings to a doctor in another place. Cars that drive themselves. Even smart flooring that can detect a slip and instantly soften to absorb the impact of a fall. All of these things are wonderful. They have a high “Wow!” factor, and its fun and easy to imagine technology solving all of our problems in a sort of science fiction utopia. But in the real world, that’s probably not going to happen. Some of these things may be quite helpful, and some may be a more cost effective way of doing things that service providers already do, but they are not a panacea. As long as there are older people who don’t get the dental care they need, who live in substandard housing, who are victims of fraud and abuse, or who have to choose between buying groceries and filling a prescription, our biggest problems cannot be solved by electronic gadgets.
Innovation involves a lot more than just technology. Most of the best innovations in the field of aging services involve people and organizations and how they relate to one another, how they help one another, how they share data and refer clients between one another, and how they cooperate to stretch precious service dollars further. Service providers have to constantly assess changing needs and respond to those changes. They have to evaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it, and try to do it better and less expensively and more effectively. They have to break down the silos that divide them, bridge divides, build partnerships, collaborate, and avoid the turf wars that have wasted resources and diverted their attention from the task at hand, which is to serve the needs of older adults and those who care for them.
How can that be done? The first thing we need to remember is that any individual agency cannot do it alone. They need to reach out and work with other organizations that serve the older adult population, or serve other populations with similar needs. The movement in Michigan toward ADRCs, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, is a good example of this trend. Those other organizations don’t have to be non-profits, and they don’t even have to be social service agencies at all. Particularly in rural areas, leveraging existing organizations can help seniors in a much more cost effective way, and can help the other organizations as well. Think about the places that seniors often congregate: Churches. VFW and Elks and Knights of Columbus halls. Diners and coffee shops. Pharmacies and post offices and public libraries. If aging service providers are trying to reach out, if they’re trying to develop community based programming, if they’re trying to stretch service dollars, they should think about ways they can work with businesses, clubs, and other public and private institutions to distribute information, provide services, and maybe even help them expand their senior membership or customer base. They need to look for opportunities to create partnerships that benefit all involved. These kinds of synergies can increase the impact of every dollar we spend providing services to older adults who need them.
And even among aging service providers, they need to work more closely together to minimize service overlap, fill gaps, play to each other’s strengths, and find as many ways to cooperate as they can. One organization that I work with is called the Southeast Michigan Senior Regional Collaborative. It covers Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, and it has more than 25 member organizations that serve seniors in some capacity. They have found it in their interests to band together to do everything from assess needs in the community, train staff members, advocate for older adults with policymakers, gather and report data to funders, and join forces to exploit economies of scale in back office operations and purchase of services. I’m not being a Pollyanna; community partnerships and collaborations take great time and effort to build, can be difficult to hold together, and sometimes require an immediate investment that does not fully pay off until some time later. Collaboration can be hard work, it can be risky, but the potential rewards are great. The pie is shrinking and the number of people clamoring for pieces of it is growing. Organizations that serve older adults can no longer afford the luxury of fighting each other or trying to do their work in isolation.
Another thing to remember is that seniors are not a different species. They’re human beings too, key members of our communities, with families and friends of all ages, with children and grandchildren and neighborhood kids they care deeply about. The interests of all these different people intersect in some way or another, and sometimes those interests can be served in tandem. If you are affiliated in any way with the aging network, you have probably have heard of Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which are wonderful programs whose full potential has never been realized due to underfunding. However, there are plenty of other innovative ways to involve older people in their communities, and many of them are quite inexpensive. Take Experience Corps, for example. It started as a small pilot program in Baltimore and has expanded to include over 2,000 older adult volunteers in 20 cities, including Grand Rapids right here in Michigan. The older volunteers work with their local public elementary schools to tutor young children in reading. Research has shown that those types of volunteer efforts boost student performance, reduce truancy and behavior problems in schools, help reduce the burden on teachers with crowded classrooms, and most importantly for our purposes, increase the mental and physical well-being and life satisfaction of the older volunteers. Everybody needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning, especially those who have retired from work and whose children are grown. It may be a cliché, but programs like Experience Corps create a win-win situation for everyone.
There are plenty of other good examples of ways in which intergenerational synergies can be developed to help serve older adults, children, and families together. In my next blog post, I’ll review a few other intergenerational programs that can address multiple problems simultaneously, and I will urge aging service providers to break out of the time-worn molds that have held them back and reduced the effectiveness and efficiency of the services they deliver.
This essay was adapted from the keynote address by Thomas B. Jankowski, PhD, at the Midland County Council on Aging Annual Meeting and Senior Services 50th Anniversary Dinner, November 12, 2013.