A History of Leadership
Today, Longevity Project is a joint partnership between Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging and the VCU Department of Gerontology, part of the College of Health Professions. But back in 2009, the coalition began right here at United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.
“United Way wanted to bring together the various organizations that contribute to the well-being of older adults and caregivers,” said Dr. Thelma Watson, Executive Director of Senior Connections. “They wanted to understand the range of services that were available to the community.”
Together with organizations like Senior Connections, ChamberRVA, Richmond Regional Planning District Commission and the Older Dominion Partnership, United Way hosted a forum on livable communities at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
“We were really focused on how to make our communities livable for people of all ages—how to support entire families,” said Dr. Watson. “Families are providing the majority of care for older adults, so it makes sense for them to be aware of and take advantage of services available. Effective solutions should be multigenerational.”
One example of this holistic approach cited by Dr. Watson would be fixing cracks in sidewalks. While this may seem like a minor nuisance on the surface, uneven pathways are problematic for people who rely on wheelchairs and walkers to get around, as well as parents who use strollers with their young children.
Before long, United Way formally launched the Longevity Project and began tackling some of these issues head-on. United Way brought together dozens of nonprofits, business groups, community agencies and other organizations to think about how best to serve older adults in the region.
“United Way’s role as a convener was critical, as was its role in securing funding for various organizations,” said Dr. Watson. “United Way supports so many organizations that provide services for older adults, which allowed [United Way] to drive some significant changes.”
One of those significant changes was elevating the focus on social isolation. According to United Way’s 2017-18 Indicators of Community Strength report, “older adults who live alone can be at risk for social isolation and reduced quality of life if there are co-existing conditions such as poverty, lack of transportation, illness, disease or disability.”
“We start by acknowledging that existing systems have not been well-designed to provide a high quality of life for people of all ages,” said Catherine MacDonald, Director of Strategy and Innovation for Longevity Project and No Wrong Door. “This creates disparities in health, wellbeing and longevity, and that’s where Longevity Project wants to help.”
Through the Longevity Project and No Wrong Door Virginia, organizations have been able to combat social isolation by targeting services to mitigate the challenges that contribute to the problem, such as lack of transportation in rural areas. No Wrong Door Virginia uses technology to link providers to collaboratively serve older adults, caregivers, adults with disabilities, veterans and families. The goal is to make it easier to find and effectively use services.
Fast forward to today. Longevity Project currently brings together 150 individuals from more than 80 organizations, many of which are supported by United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.
Longevity Project focuses its work in four key areas: research, educational services, advocacy and awareness. The group promotes emphasis on innovative, evidence-based practices and regional collaboration. Anyone who works for an organization that serves older adults is welcome to get involved, Ms. MacDonald said, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Elders and/or their families are also welcome to attend meetings and learn more about services available in their community.
“The creation of the Longevity Project is a great example of United Way at work,” said James Taylor, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. “We have been an effective incubator for many other key regional initiatives like 211, Homeward and Smart Beginnings. These and other efforts show what can be accomplished when we work together to find a united way forward.”