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Giving: Fall 2008
Author: Katrina Ratzlaff
Posted: September 25, 2008

GLOBAL POPULATION AGING is a modern fact of life. The estimated number of people worldwide who are 60 or older totals 629 million or one out of every 10 people. By 2050, that ratio will increase to one in five—about 2 billion people globally—marking the first time in human history that the number of people 60 and older is greater than the number of children under 15. The need to plan for this profound shift in the composition of our society is urgent.

A $1 million gift to Portland State's Institute on Aging from Keren Brown Wilson and Michael DeShane will jump-start a new initiative, "Aging Matters, Locally and Globally," that aims to change the way communities think about ensuring quality of life for older adults.

The donors, both PSU alumni, have devoted their lives to helping people with limited means age with dignity. Wilson is founder of the Jesse F. Richardson Foundation, which advocates for quality housing and long-term care for elders, locally and in Central America. DeShane leads Concepts in Community Living, an innovative assisted living consulting and management firm.

"Keren and I have always been concerned with the issues of providing housing and services to the poor," DeShane says. "Throughout our academic and professional careers we've seen too many well-intentioned efforts fail due to lack of a clear understanding of issues confronting the poor and disabled in urban settings. We hope the Aging Matters initiative can generate a concerted and long-term effort resulting in a better understanding of the issues and difficulties encompassed in providing effective services to low-income urban aged in the U.S. and in developing countries."

THINKING IN FRESH WAYS about issues that matter most to older adults with limited economic and social resources—a group whose voices often go unheard by researchers and policy makers—is the program's goal, according to Professor Margaret Neal, who directs the Institute on Aging in the School of Community Health.

"The top concerns facing older adults with limited income in this country—transportation, and fuel costs, housing costs, food prices, health insurance—are the same things that are affecting the rest of us," Neal notes, but for older adults with fixed incomes, "it's an especially scary situation."

The U.S. component of the program will emphasize affordable housing and services in supportive neighborhood environments.

"What we're trying to come up with is a step above assisted living, something with more professional help right at hand," says Neal. For example, a residence might have people and services on-site to help line up food stamps, arrange transportation, schedule medical appointments, handle banking or assist with any of the numerous details of daily life. "We're looking for models that meet an older person's full range of needs. One-stop shopping, if you will."

What works in the United States can't necessarily be transplanted to developing parts of the world, so the program's international outreach will explore culturally relevant models of care for elders. Neal notes that the focus at first will be on Nicaragua, the western hemisphere's second poorest nation and one in which the Institute on Aging already carries out service learning programs for students throughout the University.

"While it is by no means a bad thing to have a large older population," says Neal, "if we're not prepared for it, if we don't have the infrastructure, there will be a lot of people hurting." Thanks to the generosity of Keren Brown Wilson and Michael DeShane, Professor Neal and her colleagues have an opportunity to help communities everywhere age with compassion and dignity.

For more information about the Aging Matters initiative, contact Trish Hamilton, Director of External Relations for the College of Urban and Public Affairs, at 503-725-5209 or thamilton@pdx.edu.