UNH’s Institute for Empowered Aging develops innovative practices, advocacy campaigns, research and tools that promote neighborhood resources designed to empower older people, positioning them as community builders, community catalysts, and change agents for the greater good.
This approach invests later life with meaning and purpose, and holds up older people as a skilled and valued resource for communities everywhere.
The Institute grows out of UNH’s role in a local and national movement (the Community Experience Partnership) that is empowering older people to drive change in their communities, as well as changing the narrative about what it means to be an older person in America. The Institute accomplishes its work by:
- Training staff and older people about the values and principles underlying the Institute, including how to mobilize and support older people through the formation of self-directed project teams that identify and address important issues in their community.
- Identifying new partnerships that provide pathways for older people to apply their skills and interests for the benefit of others.
- Organizing older people as ambassadors and advocates working to extend the Institute’s ideas and approaches into communities everywhere.
Older People Leading Change: Why This is Critical
A growing community resource whose time has come
Our society is aging! In the not too distant future, one of every three adults in the US will be someone over age 60. Older adults in New York City will soon reach 1.7 million people. Not only are we living longer, but we are doing so in better health than ever before. Communities traditionally considered the growing number of older people to be a problem, expanding the need for services in an era of shrinking resources. But many communities now recognize that older people are a resource, bringing a wealth of experience from raising families, building careers, and navigating life’s challenges.
Most older people have long-standing and deep roots in their community—extended families, social networks, faith communities, professional and political connections, and other relationships they can draw on to make things happen. They have developed skills and judgment over multiple decades, and are often comfortable stepping into leadership roles, taking ownership of the work, and seeing it through to completion. Furthermore, older people want opportunities to keep growing and to give back, often by contributing their time, but also through continued learning, paid work, and “encore careers” where they are able to bring unique value.
An older person-led community-change strategy takes effort and investment. The benefits are many.
Impact on Many Levels
The Institute for Empowered Aging takes a strength and asset-based approach to aging, one that builds upon the interests, skills, experience and passions of older people and positions them as valued community resources and drivers of community change for the greater good. The Institute’s approach is an especially powerful strategy due to the multiple levels at which it has been shown to have impact.
Impact on Older People
Positioning and empowering older people as valued and needed members of their community has a tremendous impact on older people, including:
- Counteracts social isolation and loneliness - which is too often associated with growing old
- Alters pervasive negative perceptions of older people and combats ageist attitudes that create barriers to their inclusion in community life and impacts health and well-being
- Vests later life with value, meaning and purpose allowing older people to utilize their skills, knowledge, experience and interests.
- Improves the health and well-being of those involved.
The Institute’s work with older people has a significant impact on the emotional and physical health of those involved. Project reports have shown that participants get more exercise, eat healthier, lose weight, lower their blood pressure, create new social networks, are less lonely, less depressed and can even go off of a variety of medications associated with aging when they’re involved in their community working on issues of importance (NYAM report, 2013 and OASC Report, 2017).
Impact on community-based organizations
Organizations that position and empower older people as a valued resource have also benefited in many ways:
- Organizations are reaching more older people in their community who had otherwise avoided their local community or senior center but are now involved in community change opportunities created and led by teams of older people. These teams not only help the organization reach more people in their community, but position the organization as an age-affirming organization where older people’s voices are heard and listened to.
- Older people are able to use their skills and their time to plan, develop and implement new or extended programming that can reach all ages, enabling programming that is otherwise unavailable through current funding structures.
- Older people are viewed by staff differently, in ways that benefit both groups. Staff come to see older people not simple as service recipients but as a valued resource and partner within the organization. And older people feel a greater affinity for the organization and gain a greater sense of their own value and instrumentality.
- Teams of older people driving change engage community members of all ages and serve as a model that can be replicated throughout the organization and can encourage cross-department coordination.
Impact on communities
When older people are supported, positioned, and empowered to work in teams to address local issues and combat important community challenges, the results can be inspiring for all involved: the older people themselves; those they are working to help; and the organization that is supporting their work. And of course, the community as a whole benefits.
- By tapping into the talents and resources of older people the community increases its capacity and ability to drive positive community change that can benefits all residents
- Empowering and supporting older people to work in teams as community change makers provides a new and innovative community development and community building strategy that has been shown to be efficient, effective, and sustainable.
- Older adults are especially adept at bringing people across generations together; youth, adults, the younger-old and the older-old, oftentimes everyone has a stake in the issue being worked on!
The Institute for Empowered Aging: Current Initiatives
UNH has developed innovative practices and new organizational partnerships that create pathways and neighborhood based resources that empower older people, positioning them as community change agents. UNH sponsors research and develops tools that further supports this work. To date, UNH has partnered with its member organizations to mobilize older people in 24 neighborhoods throughout New York City.
The Institute trains staff at settlement houses how to form, support and empower self-directed teams of older people interested in addressing important issues in their community. This approach provides older people with an effective vehicle through which they can address issues that matter to them, in ways that utilize their skills, knowledge and interests. Self-directed teams are a concept that came out of the corporate world and which has been adapted through the Self-Directed Volunteer Network to be used in the non-profit sector. UNH members interested in learning more about this practice can contact Terry Kaelber or Katie Cardwell at UNH
Pre-K literacy: Powered by Older People
UNH is piloting an effort (using the self-directed team model) that mobilizes older people within a community who want to enhance the capacity of early childhood settings to build the literacy and social-emotional skills of young children so that they can succeed in school. Teams of older people are trained to deliver a Pre-K classroom curriculum (two hours, twice a week) developed by Jumpstart - a national early education organization focused on improving the educational outcomes for children living in poor communities as a strategy for breaking the cycle of poverty.
Every community has a story and this project aims to bring generations together to tell it. Community narratives aim to identify and address a collective community issue using storytelling techniques to elevate that issue in order to organize a community response.
Using The New York Academy of Medicine’s Age-Friendly NYC framing and tool kit, UNH is working with settlement houses to form teams of older people who are interested in making their community one where residents can successfully age in place. UNH promotes an intergenerational approach to building strong communities in which to age. This approach builds upon the multi-generational nature of settlement houses and recognizes that successful aging is tied to strong social connections and the degree to which older people remain integrated within their community throughout their lifespan.
UNH is about changing what it means to age in cities, and doing so by promoting community-based spaces and programs where generations can come together to learn, create, and be civically active. Many older people are keenly interested in the well-being of the younger generation. Building upon this interest, the Institute for Empowered Aging - in partnership with The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and Encore.org - has been developing tools and resources to support intergenerational work in settlement houses, enabling teams of older people to enhance after school programs, high school career planning, and the civic engagement of young people in their community.