Lauri Fink remembers the difficulty of helping to care for her father long distance before his death, and the different challenges that came when her mother moved in with her during the last four months of her life.

“Like many people who are caring for aging parents, I experienced grief and relief at the same time,” she says of her mother’s death in 2012. “I often thought I was fortunate to have an incredibly flexible employer who let me work from home and work late hours.”

Even with her caregiving experiences, Fink, senior program officer with Henry L. Hillman Foundation, expects to learn things from the foundation’s new Healthy Aging Challenge, which will award a total of $2 million to four winning proposals to improve the lives of older adults in southwestern Pennsylvania. NEXTpittsburgh was first with the news of the historic announcement.

“We would be really thrilled if there are even more than four [submissions] that we could continue to talk with after the project is over. We’re hoping it will generate some excitement around aging [issues],” says Fink, who will oversee the project with Lisa Johns, vice president of finance for the foundation. “We’re hoping there is a lot of collaboration among organizations and individuals doing work in that area, such that we continue to see cool projects down the road.”

This is one of the first open-prize competitions of this size in the country to address the well-being of older adults — and the first to focus specifically on Pennsylvania. Each of the four winners will receive $500,000 to implement community projects that are “transformative, feasible, equitable, and scalable.”

Eligible organizations must be registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits, but they can partner with for-profit organizations, government agencies, educational institutions and individuals. Each team must include at least one person who could benefit from the project, such as an older adult or caregiver.

The numbers are stark. Across the country, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day, and the Greater Pittsburgh area’s population continues to grow older fast, according to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging.

David Roger, president of Hillman Family Foundations, says the over-65 age group in the region is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2030. The idea behind the challenge is to “recognize novel solutions to issues facing older adults,” he says, and to “share knowledge about how we can best serve our seniors.”

In the first round of judging, teams that submit proposals will participate in peer-to-peer reviews of other applicants’ proposals. A panel of 17 local and national experts and advocates will evaluate finalist proposals. The winners will form a cohort to help refine and improve the projects as they proceed.

The challenge will accept proposals from organizations based anywhere in the country, but the projects must be geographically located in southwestern Pennsylvania. Competitors must register by April 12 and submit applications by May 10. Judging will take place through the summer and the winners will be announced in August or September.

Proposals must show evidence of initial results within 12 months. Issues might include age-friendly community development, such as aging in place; civic participation and volunteerism for older adults; intergenerational programming; ways to reduce ageism and social isolation; skill-building for caregivers; and technology for older adults and caregivers.

Shutterstock photo courtesy of the Hillman Foundation.

The idea for the challenge arose as Hillman Foundation leaders were putting together a strategic plan in 2020 and reviewed demographic statistics.

“It seemed like the challenge was a really good way to jumpstart the healthy aging portfolio. We have done some grantmaking, and this will be an acceleration of that,” says Fink.

Many people in the aging field are generating good ideas about how to help seniors age in their homes, she says, such as cohousing, “which we don’t do a lot of around here, and there’s been a huge focus on caregivers even when you take the pandemic out of it. Caregiving for older relatives is really intense.”

Some ideas may be truly novel. In Sweden, for example, younger adults are paired with seniors in housing to help the older adults physically and emotionally.

“Since we’re allowing a very broad range of ideas, we’re hoping that we see a really diverse selection of things,” says Fink. “We can learn from them and they can learn from each other.”

The Healthy Aging Challenge is a follow-up to the Healthy Allegheny Challenge that began in 2019, says Fink. That competition awarded $1.5 million to the winning entry submitted by Roots of Health, which established a community health worker training and placement program.

Roger notes that the foundation’s benefactor, Henry Hillman, “valued the importance of innovation — not just in technology, but in delivery and organization — in the health and social sectors to help improve quality of life.” The goal is to further that legacy.

A nationally prominent business and civic leader, Hillman was 98 when he died in 2017. He chaired The Hillman Company, guiding it from its roots in heavy industry into a broadly diversified global investment holding company, and created the foundation in 1964.