Reflections on Preventing Foreclosure

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Lately, I’ve been traveling for work more than usual.  In my younger days, I fancied myself a bit of a wanderer, and memories from those times have left me with a feeling of nostalgic joy whenever I have the opportunity to hit the road.  My thoughts often turn to John Steinbeck and his book “Travels with Charley”, as he zigzagged across the country, breathing-in the American experience with his large, black poodle, Charley.  I sometimes wish that I too had a canine sidekick to accompany me on my journeys.

My work is presently centered on foreclosure-prevention.   The older adults that AARP Foundation serves, like much of the country, continue to be impacted by the mortgage crisis.  And while the tidal wave of foreclosures has begun to abate at a national level, many locales have not yet experienced a reprieve.  Unfortunately, for older people, the loss of a home—generally their largest financial asset, but also an emotional foundation—is especially damaging.  Starting over is harder as one ages, and older people don’t always have the benefit of time to recover.

My travels take me to parts of the country hit especially hard by the mortgage crisis to coordinate with local organizations that come in contact with vulnerable older adults.  These interactions quickly transport me out of the lighter-hearted mindset of “Travels with Charley” to thoughts of Ma and Pa Joad, as they lose their family farm in Steinbeck’s more famous tale, “The Grapes of Wrath”.  I spend much time talking to people on the frontlines of foreclosure: the veteran who had just lost his home, trying to figure out where he would spend the night; the affordable housing manager, straining to find places to house those without homes; the legal aid lawyers, stretching themselves but unable to provide services to all those in need.

Despite the struggle and pain, every story contains a whole host of people striving to do good for others.  Whether it is librarians and staff at senior centers, directing people in-need to potential resources; reporters, investigating foreclosure-rescue scams; or local government workers, providing aid to an elderly couple who appeared in front of city hall with all their possessions the day they were evicted; there are so many people in this world trying to lift others up.

As for me, I manage a program for AARP Foundation called the Housing Solutions Center.  Through it, we provide education and advice to people who are having trouble paying their mortgages.  Our services help older people avoid foreclosure and make their homes more affordable.  People from all over the country can call our hotline, 1-855-850-2525, for no-cost assistance.  Through our services and the collaborations with local business, non-profits and governments that I’m working to establish through my travel and outreach, we provide coordinated help to older adults struggling to keep their homes.

To learn more about this work, please visit:

AARP Foundation

Housing Solutions Center

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A Trip Beyond Measure

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We live in a world of finite resources, a world in which non-profits need to ensure that they are optimizing the impact of their funding.  We measure and evaluate, conduct outcomes analysis, gauge opportunity costs and calculate social return on investment.  These exercises are important to be sure, but they only capture a part of the story.  Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that matters fits neatly into a report.  That is why I was so excited that some of AARP Foundation’s staff and board of directors recently conducted a site visit of a “Green House” model for long-term care, in which AARP Foundation has an impact investment.

The first thing that struck me was how well-lit the Green House was.  Sunlight flowed into the bedrooms through windows that took up nearly entire walls.  A gentleman in his nineties, whom we visited, sat in a rocking chair in the corner of his room.  The curtains decorating his window, along with most of the furniture in the room were brought from his home when he moved to The Green House Residences at Stadium Place in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Green House residents all have private rooms and also a lot of freedom compared to residents of traditional nursing homes.  Every day they each freely decide when to get out of bed, whether to shower, and how to socialize with the other residents.  Just down the hall from the bedrooms is the kitchen, and residents could eat whatever and whenever they want, although group meals are served three times a day.  The residents work with the staff to plan group meals, and if a few residents decide that they want to go shopping at the mall one day, the staff accommodates their request.

The staff seemed happier than those of a traditional nursing home.  Each staff person worked with only 2 to 3 residents, to whom they were permanently assigned.  Rather that every staff person specializing in one aspect of many residents’ lives: bathing, dining, putting to bed; the staff helped a small number of residents with all aspects of their existence.  This allowed the staff to truly bond with the residents, something that those who work in this low-paying, caring profession really do value.

While there are many measureable benefits of the Green House: improved health outcomes, reduced hospital admissions, reduction in costs from staff turnover; there are also many benefits of the model that are harder to convey.   The dignity of self-determination, the joy of building relationships with caregivers, the comfort of a pleasant environment:  all of these things are important to residents.  But it takes a bit more effort to really weigh their value.  Site visits are a great opportunity to learn more about the measurable and immeasurable benefits of a program, and it’s a practice that I hope AARP Foundation’s staff and board will continue to leverage as we seek to improve the lives of vulnerable older adults.

Tigers and Strawberries

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The Buddhists tell the story of a man fleeing from a tiger who went plunging over a cliff and saved himself only by catching hold of a small strawberry plant growing between the rocks of the precipice. Caught between the tiger above and the gorge below, the man clung to the bush with one hand–thought for a moment–and with the other hand picked the most luscious strawberry he had ever eaten in his entire life.

The Gift of Years, Sister Joan Chittister

It feels odd sometimes to write about aging.  I’m 35, which while past the point of being young, can hardly be considered old.  I know that I lack the perspective that additional years will bring, and I while I occasionally read articles about how I will feel and what I will learn with each coming decade, I have a very difficult time internalizing and applying that information to my present.

We live in a society in which aging has drawbacks, and in many ways, I am afraid of the coming years.  I’m cognizant that in the eyes of some my value goes down as the lines on my face grow more pronounced.  Outside of vanity, my body, though strong, has become much more susceptible to pain and injury than it was when I was younger.  And I’m very much aware of the challenges I will face as my parents grow old and require more hands-on care.  As we age, it becomes harder to recover from a job loss or a financial setback, harder to reinvent ourselves.  It seems that a fear of aging is reasonable.

And that’s precisely why we need older people—to teach us to live the entirety of our lives to our fullest.  Watching another person age with joy and courage and love gives me so much inspiration.  It’s really through the examples of those further in their journey from whom I am learning to embrace life, live in the present and savor every moment I have.

Coming closer to the end of life, forces people to be more intentional in choosing what is important.  As the tiger and the gorge close in, we must make a conscious effort to put them aside and savor the strawberry.  To me, it seems harder to live and love without an expectation of a future.  But older people give me many examples:  my grandma and great-aunts, who keep smiling and gossiping as they share their room in a nursing home together; a family friend who despite advanced Parkinson’s prepared legal documents pro bono on behalf of his nurse; the woman in her nineties who knits hundreds of gifts every year for those around her.  These people are truly living fearlessly in the present and teaching others to do the same.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers often say that they received more than they gave during their time working in the developing world.  I sometimes think of my work similarly.  I am able to make a contribution to the lives of vulnerable older adults.  But through my experiences working with older people, I’m also gaining perspective on what really matters and how to live with courage and cherish the beauty that I will find throughout all of my time in this world.  

East Meets West–Grandparenting

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The Communist-style apartment building where I lived for a year and a half in Beijing would probably not appeal to most Americans.  It was cold in the winter, filled with cockroaches in the summer, and the availability of heated water was sometimes difficult to predict.  However, for middle-class Chinese people, my living conditions were fairly standard.  The apartment building was large, at least ten stories, and each story was home to around 8 families.  Every morning the parents would rise to catch the bus for work, and one or more grandparents would remain at home to care for their single grandchild or help him or her get off to school.

Grandparents are a lot more involved in the lives of their grandchildren in China.  Part of this is due to the One-Child Policy, which has restricted many grandparents to only one grandchild.  A lack of a social-safety net also encourages closer ties among extended families.  And traditional Chinese cultural generally requires children to care for their aging parents, making it quite common for grandparents, especially the paternal, to live in their adult child’s home.

With parents facing a great deal of pressure at work in China, many grandparents step in to take on much of the responsibility for raising their grandchild.  This has the benefit of relieving parents of some household responsibility, but has also raised some concern among Chinese educators and the government regarding whether infants and toddlers are receiving sufficient care and preparation for school from their aging caregivers.

America, for the most part, has taken a different course regarding the role of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren.  Grandparents tend to be less involved with their grandchildren, unless parents are absolutely unable to fill the role of primary caregiver.  Expectations for an empty nest during retirement years and plans to travel or pursue hobbies have often superseded significant childcare responsibilities for grandparents.  Additionally, the presence of many children and grandchildren within a family can make splitting time among family members difficult.

With the recession, the American nuclear family has been forced to expand.  Children are living with their parents longer.  Older adults are finding it more often necessary to move in with their children.  This new reality could change expectations regarding the role that grandparents play in the lives of the grandchildren.  By involving grandparents more, parents, especially working moms, could be able to better balance their work and home lives.  Of course, every family is different, and what may be work for one, may create tension in another.  However, it is quite possible that some American families will be able to build more sustainable family lives by taking cues from the model of grandparenting used in China.

Nuns and Their Money

And so the story goes…

Once upon a time, there was a bunch of nuns with a problem.  Some of the nuns were getting very old and were in need of financial assistance. However, having taken vows of poverty, the nuns were reluctant to spend money on themselves because they felt compelled to help others who were suffering.  A solution was suggested:  the nuns could invest their money.  But instead of investing in companies, the sisters would give loans to organizations that fought poverty by building affordable housing or starting small businesses.  Although these organizations benefited society, they also had solid balance sheets and the capacity to repay loans with interest.  Cash flows from these repayments could be reinvested in the community or used to assist older nuns.  The sisters decided to try this idea… and it worked!  And it was from their desire to maximize the impact of limited capital both financially and socially that “impact investing” was born.   And they all lived happily ever after…

The End

 

Someone once told me that the IRS invented impact investing…  True or not, this is a much better story… I especially like that aging plays a central role in this story, as it does in my work to support vulnerable older adults at AARP Foundation…

Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, once said, “Poor people don’t need charity.  They need capital.”  Impact investments, investments made with the expectation of positive social and financial returns, do just that, they drive capital to people and programs that are ignored or deemed too risky by traditional capital markets.  Despite their perceived risk, impact investing intermediaries like Enterprise Community Loan Fund and the National Housing Trust only write-off a small fraction of their investments annually, small enough that their loan-loss reserves have ensured they have never missed a repayment to their own investors.  In fact, during the downturn, many impact portfolios outperformed their conventional counterparts.

There are a large range options available in the impact investing sector.  These investments come in many different forms, including equity investments, cash deposits, and most commonly loans.  Returns on impact investments can also be designed to vary based on investor requirements, from a market rate of return to something lower.  Impact investments can be structured to suit various risk tolerances as well.  While large businesses, charities and foundations are the most active impact investors, opportunities are available to fit smaller organizations down to individuals.  It is truly a diverse market.

Seeing the results of impact investments first-hand always inspires me.  I love meeting the entrepreneurs who have opened small businesses that become sources of stability in their lives and communities.  It’s heartening to visit affordable housing complexes that have been so beautifully designed that no one would guess that many of the people living there were recently homeless.  And overwhelmingly, these investments are meeting the financial and social expectations set forth by their investors.

I was honored recently to speak on a panel at the Aspen Institute regarding the ease with which organizations, like my own, have started impact investing in affordable housing.  It was a great conversation, and I posted the video below.  Throughout the discussion, it was emphasized that many resources exist and are easily accessible to take the first steps toward impact investing.  Most importantly though,  the conversation highlighted the potential for impact investing to transform lives and build communities, opportunities that should interest us all, not just nuns.

Strong Is the New Skinny

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The Remarkable Story of Ernestine Shepherd from Kristen Harding on Vimeo.

There is a saying that’s been floating around my gym recently, “Strong is the new skinny.”  It means that while in the past exercise was primarily used to create a thinner and supposedly more beautiful figure, people are now starting to use exercise as a way to create strength, and beauty is now found in the functionality of that strength.   This how older people, especially low-income older people,  should be encouraged to think about exercise.

We know that older adults are not getting enough exercise.   According to the CDC, only 9% to 26% of adults aged 60 to 69 and 6% to 10% of adults aged 70 or older meet current U.S. recommendations for physical activity.

This problem is more pronounced among the poorer population.  Only 17.6% of people from households earning less than $15,000 report achieving the recommended levels of physical activity and 39.5% report no leisure time activity whatsoever,  according to Active Living by Design, a group that works to increase physical activity within the population.  Additionally, more than a quarter of people from households earning less than $15,000 are considered obese.

Exercise plays an important role in staving off chronic diseases, like arthritis and diabetes, and preventing falls—two problems that contribute significantly of overall healthcare costs in the U.S.  But physical activity and strength are also vital in allowing older adults to connect to their communities and avoid isolation.

I am reminded of my Grandmother.  One winter when she was in her eighties, my Grandma stopped her daily walking routine because of icy sidewalks.  When spring came, she noticed that her garage needed to be painted.  Being independent and used to the physical activity of her younger life managing a farm, Grandma drove to the hardware store, bought paint, and painted half a wall of the garage herself.  The next day an ambulance took her to the hospital.  She was dehydrated and too stiff to move.  This episode began a period of decline in which my Grandma became more fragile, less willing to leave her home and more isolated from society.  Eventually, she moved to a nursing home, where she has lived most of the last decade—an existence that is not very fulfilling and definitely costly to society.

It is not necessary for older adults to exercise as much as Earnestine Sheppard in video above.  But it makes sense to give older people more examples like Mrs. Sheppard, so they know what’s possible. It helps to have people to look up to and try to emulate.  Providing older people with opportunities to engage in physical activities in their own homes or, better yet, in groups, would also help them to adopt healthier lifestyles, avoid the isolation that comes with losing strength and stamina, and live independently longer.

So Happy Together

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housemates

“Have you missed a mortgage payment yet?”  “How much do you spend on cable and internet service?”  “Do you have any additional sources of income?”

Through my job, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many recordings of HUD-certified foreclosure-prevention counseling sessions.  The counselors have been trained to explore every possible method that a client could use to avoid foreclosure.   That final question, “Do you have any additional sources of income?” stands out to me.  It’s always interesting, the ingenuity that people in difficult circumstances use to keep themselves afloat.  In the last counseling session I monitored, the client, a woman in her sixties who had been out of work for ten years, was supplementing her income by bringing on a tenant.

Getting a housemate, at times referred to as home sharing and in some instances co-housing, is often perceived as a crutch for the young who haven’t yet established themselves.  However, many older people are beginning to share their homes, taking on the roles of landlords, tenants, and housemate-equals as a means to create a lifestyle that is financially sustainable and emotionally fulfilling.

Becoming a landlord in a shared-home relationship can be quite attractive.  In the counseling session I previously mentioned, the counselor discovered that while the client didn’t currently qualify for a loan modification, she likely would if she brought on a second tenant.  The automatic cash flow generated by taking a tenant into her home was an extremely attractive proposition to the client, as it is for many older homeowners.

Older adults are also desirable tenants in shared-home situations.  According to stereotypes, older people are quieter and more dependable than others in the population.  Older tenants can use this to their advantage when negotiating rent.  One of my friends, the working mom of a toddler, was introduced to an older lady who was looking for a place to stay.  They came to a mutually beneficial agreement in which childcare services were provided in exchange for rent in a shared home. The perceived reliability of older tenants makes them prime candidates for these types of cost-saving arrangements.

Of course, some older people are simply averse to living alone.  Getting housemates for them is a natural lifestyle choice. Older women with housemates tend to outnumber older men simply because of longer life expectancies.  And much like the situation depicted in the sitcom “The Golden Girls” more and older women are making the decision to enter a shared-home relationship as equal partners in order to create community and reduce expenses.

For some people, sharing their home may not be the right fit.  But for others, it offers a real opportunity to improve their lifestyles and financial situations as they age.  For these people, the only question left to answer is, “Who does the dishes?”

Getting Social

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facebook-oldest-oldiesMy mother, 63, loves Facebook.  After her vacations, she calls me and asks me to help her post her pictures.  If I don’t update my status enough, she gets nervous.  She is currently driving my dad to Chicago for follow-up on his cancer treatment.  Even though the roads are bad, I know she’s ok because she just checked-in at Speedway.  Sometimes she posts slightly embarrassing messages on my wall; I try to humor her…

I went to a “social media bootcamp” for work last week.  According to a report commissioned by AARP, approximately one-quarter of all those 50+ use social media websites, with Facebook being by far the most popular.  So in my position working with vulnerable older adults, it’s becoming more and more important for me to be able to understand and use social media.

It makes sense for lower-income people to use social media.  In many cases, it is less expensive to use a smartphone rather than a landline and internet together.  Because internet access is becoming almost necessary for paying bills and conducting personal business, smartphones can reduce monthly household expenditures for vulnerable populations.  Since social media enhances and at times optimizes the capabilities of smartphones, being able to use social media can only benefit those with smartphones.

For vulnerable older people, I think there are some good reasons to promote the use of social media.  Here’s a few:

  • Discounts and special offers on products are often offered through social media sites.  Additionally, many publications make available free articles on social media that would otherwise require payment.  Social media can allow those with lower incomes to save money in their day-to-day purchases.
  • There are conflicting studies regarding the effectiveness of using social media to connect people to their communities and relieve loneliness.  However, there is certainly potential for social media to create positive connections in the lives of older adults.  If fact, AARP Foundation recently began piloting a program to help older people learn to better use technology and social media for the purpose of reducing isolation.
  • During an emergency or natural disaster, television and radio communications become less useful without power.  Tweets, Facebook posts, email or text messaging may help improve emergency outcomes by making information about shelter locations, evacuation orders, etc. more accessible. Also, some older people lack the capability to evacuate and social media may enable these people to alert rescue organizations of their need for assistance.

Young@Heart

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The purpose of life is a life of purpose.  –Robert Byrne

The woman singing The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” in the 2007 documentary “Young@Heart” is named Eileen Hall, and she was ninety-two at the making of the film.  The film documents the journey of a musical ensemble, composed of singers with an average age of eighty, as it prepares to present a new show.  The music they perform includes hits from the sixties and seventies, as well as more modern punk and alternative pieces.   Throughout the film, it becomes evident that the responsibility of preparing for the show and the relationships formed between members of the group give a sense of purpose and meaning in the lives of the singers.  For Eileen, who lives in a nursing home, you can sense that singing is one of the few things connecting her to others and to the larger world.  The nurses have given her keys to the door so that she can get in and out of the nursing home to attend practice.  In comparison to the common view of nursing home residents, Eileen seems much more engaged and alive.  She, like most of us, needs to be needed, needs to be a part of something bigger than herself.

The Village of Redford is a nursing home that I visited last summer in southeast Michigan.  The Village is based on a unique model called a “Green House,” in which residents are given more independence in setting their daily schedules and choosing activities than in traditional nursing homes.  This model also tries to create a greater sense of community by encouraging residents to come together every day to eat family-style at a large, common table next to an open kitchen where the food is prepared.  Managers of Green Houses have found that when residents are integrated into this model they flourish because they are able to find a place in the home where they can be part of and contribute to the community.  Whether it is visiting other residents each morning, helping to set the table, or simply being a constant presence in a common area, residents tend each find their own unique space to fill within the home.  Cost to house residents in a Green House models is similar to traditional nursing homes, but studies are showing that health outcomes are improved and healthcare costs reduced .

As humans, our need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves—to have a purpose—doesn’t diminish as we age.  However, finding that purpose is much harder, as our ability to work and participate in physical activities and the community at-large erodes.  Creating environments in which elders have the opportunity to carve out a purpose for themselves not only has the likelihood of increased contentment in their lives, but also has the potential to improve more measurable outcomes like healthcare costs and hospital admissions/readmissions rates.

Young@Heart is available for instant viewing on Netflix.  

Becoming Naples

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My parents live in a small town in Northern Michigan that seems to get colder with each passing winter.  Like many of their friends, they’re beginning to spend more and more of the snow season in warmer climates—in their case, Naples, Florida.  I admit that Florida has never held a huge appeal to me.  For some reason, I associate it with mosquitoes and unbearable humidity.  But last winter my parents invited me down to visit Naples for the first time.

Upon arrival, Mom and Dad decided to take me out for dinner.  We walked into the restaurant, sat down, and I began to look around.  My parents, at 63 and 65, were by far and away the youngest people within sight, excluding myself.  In fact, everywhere we went in Naples, my parents were among the younger crowd.  I marveled at this to a colleague of mine from Florida.  She said, “Yes, Florida leads the country with the size of our older population.  But make no mistake; the rest of the country is definitely moving in the same direction.”

My colleague was correct.  Population trends are definitely moving US demographics toward what is now normal in some parts of Florida.  According to the US Census bureau, the population aged sixty-five and older will double over the next thirty years, as the baby boomers turn sixty-five.  Additionally, as the boomers reach sixty-five, then seventy-five, then eighty-five, the population in each bracket will swell, shifting the average age higher.

imagesCAYNOVKG

Certainly a large older population will pose challenges for us, especially with respect to our healthcare system and our social safety net in light of the recent recession, which has left many boomers with significantly reduced savings.  However, there is also a huge market opportunity for those with goods and services, both at high and low price points, that are attractive to an older population and those who give them care.  I believe that in the next decade, we will begin to see increased entrepreneurial activity directed to an aging target audience as well as the tailoring of existing products to the needs of older people.  Additionally, I think that the social sector will be forced to transform itself in order to meet the needs of the most vulnerable older people.

It’s going to be an exciting time for innovation.