Finding a Better Frame: How a Funders Group Looks at Aging

photo: Laszlo66/shutterstock

photo: Laszlo66/shutterstock

Not long ago, a group of foundations and national organizations commissioned the Frameworks Institute to study public attitudes toward aging. The results were sobering. At first, respondents defaulted to a sunny “golden years” narrative of contented retirement. But looking deeper, the study uncovered a profoundly negative view of aging characterized by deterioration, dependency and creeping incompetence.

“There’s a very, very deep level of dislike of aging in our whole society, and philanthropy accepts some of that attitude,” says John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers In Aging (GIA), the philanthropic affinity group that served as a convener and fiscal agent for the study. “Only about 2 percent of philanthropic dollars go into aging, and that number hasn’t really changed in the past 15 to 20 years.”

Meanwhile, America’s population grows steadily older. By 2060, according to some estimates, the number of Americans over the age of 64 will double. That’s a major demographic shift, but the policy response has been quite muted. Through initiatives like the Frameworks Institute’s ReFraming Aging study, GIA is marshaling its members to change that.

The ReFraming Aging campaign called on support from the AARP, the Archstone Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the John A. Hartford Foundation, among others. Over the years, GIA has grown into a national membership organization with nearly 100 affiliates.

Like many of the affinity groups we’ve covered, GIA got its start informally. In 1982, staff from several foundations, including Charles Stewart Mott and Robert Wood Johnson got together to exchange ideas. The affinity group grew from there. GIA took on a full-time staff in 1999 and became a key information resource for funders in the field.

Feather sees changing attitudes as a vital part of GIA’s work. Like other affinity groups, GIA promotes and supports giving in its niche. But aging directly and inevitably affects every one of us, and doubly so through our family and friends. The issue’s magnitude has been daunting to many funders. According to Feather, “People see it as an enormous mountain of need that they can’t possibly make a difference in.”

But funding around aging doesn’t have to mean confronting mortality itself. According to GIA, there’s a lot that funders can do—and are doing—not just to make America more age-friendly, but to embrace older people as a boon rather than a burden. 

For instance, comfortable retirees can often bring more economic potential and community life to an area than newcomers in the “prime” of life. And neighborhoods that serve older people well, through a variety of housing, safety features, and transportation options, tend to be better for everyone. 

In that spirit, building bridges between the generations is a tactic some funders are supporting on the community level. We’ve written about intergenerational initiatives by the Eisner Foundation in Los Angeles. Community centers incorporating intergenerational programming are another exciting prospect. 

At the same time, GIA’s focus on positive and intersectional opportunities doesn’t preclude attention to very real challenges. While poverty among older Americans has dropped dramatically in the last 50 years, many seniors still live in or near poverty, and looking ahead, this problem is likely to get much worse, given that many Americans haven't saved enough for retirement and the growing budgetary pressures on entitlement programs. Even seniors who are financially secure can face mobility issues and social isolation in an era when more older people are childless and divorced than in previous periods. During disasters, as we recently saw in Texas and Florida, older people are more likely to perish.

While Feather describes GIA’s members as embracing “a very wide array of political and social ideas,” he speaks of a sense of surprise and uncertainty around proposed changes to the healthcare system, including to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. The majority of GIA’s members fund locally and cannot hope to replace government programs, Feather says. That’s been a common refrain among affinity groups this year.

Meanwhile, there are persistent racial and ethnic disparities in older Americans’ quality of life, and opioid addiction has impacted older people in rural communities to a startling degree. The latter is the subject of a recent GIA report undertaken with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. 

In the end, though, changing fatalistic attitudes toward aging might be the most powerful way to increase philanthropic investment and redirect the winds of policy. Feather has penned a series of articles in the Huffington Post taking a deeper dive into how that might be accomplished.

Rethinking aging was also on the agenda at GIA’s annual conference for 2017, which it recently held in Boston. Sponsored by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, the Archstone Foundation, the AARP Foundation and the Eisner Foundation, among others, the conference looked at ways to include older people in more aspects of society. Age-friendly communities were a focal point of the conference, as well as a push for intersectionality. As Feather put it, “The point is not just to make it better for older people, but to make it better for everyone including older people.”