by Adam Templeton
In the early 90's the then- mayor of Seattle, Norm Rice, took a look at the problems facing elderly African Americans and saw a bleak picture. Not only had the population grown by 32 percent from 1980-1990, but one in four African Americans aged 60 and older had an income 125 percent below the poverty level. Add to that disparities in the burden of illness - African Americans have a higher incidence of diabetes and heart disease, an earlier age of mortality, as well as a history of discrimination and frustration with services provided by both public and private sectors - and Mayor Rice found a population badly in need of care but poorly equipped to make use of existing services.
Today, the statistics have not dramatically changed; African Americans continue to have a higher burden of illness and death and the number of elderly continues to grow. However, a relatively new partnership, the African American Elderly Project (AAEP) has been developed by the former Mayor Rice and community leaders to address these problems. The AAEP utilizes the expertise of four city services, Aging and Disability Services (ADS), Senior Services of Seattle/King County, Public Health of Seattle & King County, and the Mayor's Council on African American Elders (MCAAE) to identify frail, isolated older African Americans and assist them in accessing needed health services.
Eileen Murphy, who works with the AAEP through ADS, explained, "All of the partner agencies do different work, but this project brings them all together for the first time." Outreach staff and a community support specialist are provided by Senior Services and help get the word out about the AAEP. Once an elder in need is identified, the project swings into gear.
In the case of an elder in the early stages of dementia, an ADS case manager would work to create support systems, help the elder access needed services, and find ways to manage the household and personal finances. To deal with the medical problems that may arise or problems that have already occurred, a nurse from Public Health might be assigned to work with the elder. The goal, according to Karen Winston, who works on the AAEP through Senior Services, is to allow African American elders to remain in their home communities and out of institutions.
The program has been quite a success. In 1999 the AAEP received awards from Seattle Works! and a Human Services Department maximum achievement award. The two case managers have their hands full with over 200 cases and the Public Health nurse has as many as 350 home visits a year.
To better serve elder need, the AAEP also has future plans for consolidation and expansion, with a goal to spin the program off into a free-standing, non-profit agency that would contract out through the city of Seattle. Although the recent economic downturn has presented some barriers, Winston expressed hope that by 2004 this non-profit agency would be in position to start working independently.
With these hopes and with the successes already achieved, the African American Elders Project has made substantial headway in addressing these challenges.
For more information on the AAEP, or if you know of an African American Elder living in either South or Central Seattle who is isolated within the community and lacks formal and informal support systems due to illness, frailty, or disability, contact the AAEP at (206) 674-9271.