Dignity: A Wealthy Couple Aims to Improve the Healthcare Landscape for Seniors

Each day, 10,000 Americans turn 65. In 2012, 13.7 percent of the population was 65 and older. By 2040, that number will grow to 21 percent. This shift has profound implications for our healthcare system, not to mention society more broadly, but it's an issue that doesn't get as much attention from philanthropy as you might think — even as political leaders endlessly debate reforming entitlements for seniors and entrepreneurs rush forward with new elder care startups.

Most of the grantmaking we see on senior issues is done locally, as funders cope with new human service needs in their aging communities. It's typical to see community foundations taking the lead in this area, as well as stalwart local human service funders. For example, the Meyer Memorial Trust is an important funder on senior issues in Oregon. The Cafritz Foundation does a lot of such grantmaking in the Washington, D.C., area. 

Meanwhile, in Southern California, the Gary and Mary West Foundation funds both locally and beyond. The charity was founded in 2006 with the intention of helping seniors and improving healthcare delivery. The foundation supports successful aging initiatives throughout the country with collaborators that include academic institutions and senior-focused nonprofit organizations. Recent grantees include Volunteers Assisting Seniors in Omaha,and the Consumer Center for Health Education and Advocacy, which "provides entitlement assistance to low-income seniors." 

The Wests made their money at the helm of West Corporation, a communications company based in Omaha. When they retired, the Wests headed — well, west — and began to focus on philanthropy. While we write often about recent retirees beginning or ramping up their philanthropy, it's curious that more funders don't focus on healthcare for the elderly like the Wests have. After all, it has to be an issue on the minds of many wealthy people as they get older. Philanthropy in the health space is often motivated by personal experience — e.g., a cancer scare — but the most universal human experience of all, aging and decline, doesn't seem to motivate check writing in the same way. 

In addition to their foundation, in 2009, the Wests created the the West Health Institute, a nonprofit applied medical research organization in San Diego. Three years later, they followed that up with the West Health Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The foundation will also launch the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center in the middle of 2016. These efforts all aim to improve the healthcare landscape for seniors. 

Now comes news of gifts totalling $11.8 million from the Gary and Mary West Foundation to the UC San Diego Health System.A $6.3 million gift from the foundation will establish the Gary and Mary West Senior Emergency Care Unit, providing "enhanced emergency services designed to meet the unique needs of seniors, including geriatric medicine, acute care screening, urgent care, case management, and social and psychiatric care." An additional $5.5 million from the West Health Institute will fund "multi-year medical research for developing, evaluating and disseminating innovative care approaches for geriatric patients."

Of the gift, West said that he and Mary are "committed to helping seniors age successfully with dignity, quality of life and independence... we believe healthcare specifically tailored for seniors, especially geriatric emergency care, is critical to achieving these goals.” 

Luckily for the elderly (and all of us really), the Wests are on the case.