For older adults, staying healthy has everything to do with socializing and having access to food and medical care, says Heather Sedlacko. But not all seniors are receiving the aid they are entitled to. It’s why the organization that she directs, Vintage, and Macedonia FACE will go door to door in the Hill District to reach out to those who may not come to senior centers.

For their Wise Neighbor Project, the two organizations will hire outreach workers to talk with seniors about their needs, using a $500,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation’s Healthy Aging Challenge. They’ll start in the Hill District and later expand to other neighborhoods.

“While we’re able to have lots of older adults come through Vintage’s doors each year, we know there are more seniors living at home who are underserved or unserved,” says Sedlacko. Vintage is a service of Familylinks, which serves vulnerable populations in Western Pennsylvania.

Some underserved people may not know what resources are available or know how to access them while some may be afraid they’ll have to give up too much personal information, or they may not trust the healthcare system because of a history of systemic racism.

“This project is really focused on helping people who would have barriers to getting help,” Sedlacko says. “It’s about helping those seniors who are at risk to overcome those barriers so they can get the services they need and stay in their homes and communities.”

Seniors play pool in the pool room at the Vintage Center for Active Adults. Photo courtesy of Vintage, a service of Familylinks.

Macedonia FACE has provided resources to families in the Hill since 1994, says interim CEO Tinisha Hunt. In 2019, the site expanded to include senior services.

“What we quickly learned is that our seniors are not shy. They speak up about what they want, what they deserve,” Hunt says. “They are the historians of the community; they are the ones who hold the information and are striving to restore the legacy of the community. So, our senior center has continued to operate even throughout the pandemic, with virtual programming, wellness calls and opportunities to engage.

“But we know that there is an untapped population of seniors who are not accessing the tools, resources and assets of the community.”

About 11,000 seniors were living in the Hill, Homewood and East Liberty during the 2020 census, Hunt says — all neighborhoods that the Wise Neighbor Project will reach over the next few weeks.

“We definitely knew there were seniors who weren’t coming to our senior center, especially during the pandemic,” Hunt says. “We learned there are definitely people who live in the Hill District who are not accessing services that are available to them for free. How do they resolve these challenges that arise in their lives? There may be a service that supports that need.

“That led us to say, what we do is more than deliver Meals on Wheels or have seniors come to the center. What we do is help be a lifeline to those individuals in our community and help them get connected to resources that are available. We recognize that, ultimately, it allows them independence and the ability to stay in their homes in the community they love, and overall, it increases their wellbeing.”

Senior Center members participated in a reflective art activity with Ujamaa Collective titled Picturing the Past. Photo by Elyse Cinquino, former FACE senior center engagement coordinator.

In addition to the Wise Neighbor Project, this year’s Healthy Aging Challenge awardees include three other proposals that also will receive $500,000 each:

Macedonia FACE offers a free shuttle service to Hill District community members. Photo by Elyse Cinquino, former FACE senior center engagement coordinator.

The finalists were selected through a review process that included peer-to-peer evaluation among the 29 applicants and review by a panel of 27 local and national experts and industry leaders.

The awardees are “organizations and partnerships with extensive track records of caring for older populations and innovating when resources are limited,” says David K. Roger, president of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. “Aging affects all of us, but in different ways. The work that these organizations are doing now — and will do in the future — will benefit a wide cross-section of the region’s population.”

Sedlacko believes the Wise Neighbor Project impressed the evaluators because “we are two very community-based organizations and we’ve been around a long time, but we recognize we need to collect the data that proves that our social services make a difference in people’s health. Then the health insurers, we hope, will pay for that.”

Macedonia FACE — an outgrowth of Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh but operated separately at the Thelma Lovette YMCA — is a trusted community organization but its new project will elevate its services to a new level, Hunt says.

“The community ambassadors will do outreach and that engagement will close care gaps that exist within the health system and human services,” Hunt says. “We can say, ‘Hey, we’re here. Maybe you don’t feel like you need us now, but if something does come up, these are the avenues.’

“Seniors are navigating this space in their lives for the first time,” she says. “A lot of African-American seniors don’t have the nest egg to support them in their later years. To help them have some voice and agency and options is very important.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.