Programs with Purpose

Across America, older adults are finding ways to successfully age in place and engage with their communities, often with the support of public and private initiatives. Purpose-driven programs ranging from intergenerational tutoring and foster grandparenting to coordinated care services are up and running in cities large and small. These projects have emerged from the foresight of innovative policymakers, organizations, and individuals.

The initiatives listed here highlight just a sampling of what can be accomplished with fresh ideas and focused implementation. The Milken Institute applauds these programs. We believe they will inspire others to think and act creatively to promote, expand, and spread successful and purposeful aging.

Age-Friendly NYC's Aging Improvement Districts

"People have said this is a lifesaver," says Caitlyn Smith, strategic assistance coordinator for Age-Friendly NYC. A seemingly mundane street feature, the humble bench, is key to helping older adults get out to walk, shop, and socialize, Smith says. Age-Friendly NYC is a project of the mayor's office, the City Council, and the New York Academy of Medicine. The need for more benches emerged in consultation with residents of the East Harlem Aging Improvement District, the first of four NYC districts emphasizing older adults' needs. Harlem's bench program was so popular that it blossomed citywide. The goal: 1,500 benches by 2015. Another winner was senior hours at community pools, an option replicated at 16 pools where more than 1,000 seniors swim. The city plans 10 additional special aging districts in the coming year, with residents suggesting age-friendly features, from lighting to computer classes, to be implemented by public agencies and businesses.


Joan could use a friendly visitor, and Roger would like someone to accompany him grocery shopping. Judy needs a ride every Monday. People who are willing to help a neighbor out in the Greater Phoenix area can see who's in need by simply clicking the interactive map on the website of Duet, a nonprofit that helps older people live independently at home. Volunteers provide free, one-on-one support in the form of check-in calls and visits, computer assistance, light home repairs, help with paperwork, and transportation to medical appointments and other destinations. Volunteers are screened by Duet, which also supports people caring for their grandchildren. The interfaith organization, founded by Rev. Dr. Dosia Carlson and the Church of the Beatitudes in 1981, helped 756 homebound neighbors last year. Volunteers provided more than 8,300 rides to health and social services.

Elders Share the Arts

They all have stories to tell, and the older adults in this program share their stories through art: vivid paintings of home, photographic reflections on the water in Maine and Amsterdam, an essay on a childhood friend, collages reflecting rich lives. Through Elders Share the Arts, founded in 1979 by Susan Perlstein, seniors give creative voice to their experiences. The New York City nonprofit enlists professional artists to teach writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and more. In senior centers and residences and other community settings, they help older adults explore their identities, then share a bit of themselves through performance, exhibits, and writing. A talented and popular group of ESTA storytellers, the Pearls of Wisdom, regularly performs in schools and community settings, showcasing their personal narratives. These performances link generations, as do ESTA's programs that bring schoolchildren and older adults together for art projects.


A newfound knack for painting, a rekindled talent for acting, the discovery of tai chi: EngAGE provides lifelong learning that inspires residents of affordable senior housing communities in Southern California and Oregon. Residential facilities hire EngAGE to offer arts and wellness classes, which are designed like college courses and taught by professionals. Whether jamming in a jazz group, producing theater, or creating visual artworks, the older students prove that creativity and learning know no age barriers. Established in 1999, EngAGE serves 6,000 people at 33 senior-living locations, demonstrating the endless possibilities for reinvention. At EngAGE's flagship program, the Burbank Senior Arts Colony, residents share their talents with a new generation of artists through an exchange with the Burbank Unified School District. Whatever creative passion these older adults pursue, their classes frequently culminate in a performance or exhibition. It's showtime!

Experience Corps

AARP's popular volunteer tutor program offers something for everyone: a helping hand for classroom teachers, new purpose for retirees, and reading skills for school kids. These skills come with a bonus in the form of caring adults in the students' lives. With the help of 2,100 volunteers, Experience Corps is helping to create positive learning environments in 22 U.S. cities. AARP provides training for the volunteers, who are then matched with academically struggling children. In the course of these relationships, the tutors' commitment and mentoring offer reliable support for the students, who are generally from low-income homes. Frequently, the volunteers end up providing a grandparent-type presence for the children as well, and they build a bridge between schools and their communities. As for results, research finds that students who worked with Experience Corps' tutors showed significantly more progress in comprehension and grade-level reading skills than their peers.

Family Friends, Temple University Intergenerational Center

Families with children or caregivers who have special needs, such as autism, cerebral palsy, or emotional trauma, face stress that can seem overwhelming and isolating. Family Friends, an initiative of the Intergenerational Center at Temple University, steps in to help ease the burden, training volunteers 55 and older and pairing them with families in Philadelphia. Volunteers provide a variety of services, from errands to homework help and reading to children. They accompany kids and family members on field trips to museums, amusement parks, the zoo, and other fun destinations. With continuous visits and mentorship from volunteers as children grow, lasting friendships also grow. The program also helps people connect to social services and aids older people who are raising their grandchildren.

Grandparents Park

Humble in size and basic in amenities, Grandparents Park filled a gap in a Wichita, Kan., neighborhood. It offers a gathering and recreation site, especially for older adults and their grandchildren. The park, which grew out of community meetings about improving the neighborhood, seemed a natural fit. Older residents needed an outdoor recreation option when they cared for young grandkids. Local officials agreed that a pair of city-owned vacant lots offered a solution, and they donated the property. Seed money from AARP Kansas made it possible to install a walking path and exercise station geared to older people. Landscaping was added along with a drinking fountain, benches, and playground equipment, and the city handles maintenance. Today, the park's unquantifiable value is seen in a walking group, kids at play, and intergenerational hobnobbing.

Hope Meadows

Foster children at Hope Meadows enjoy more than a new home and adoptive family. They find new "grandparents" and a nurturing community designed to help them grow in a stable, loving environment. Hope Meadows is a five-block neighborhood on a former military base in Rantoul, Ill., run by the nonprofit Generations of Hope. It provides a support network for foster families and engages retirees who seek new purpose in their lives. Older people volunteer with kids and in community efforts, and pay reduced rent. They typically forge deep bonds with the families. The families pledge to foster and adopt at least three children in return for free housing and a stipend to stay home with them. The community, founded by Ph.D. researcher Brenda Eheart, has facilitated 71 adoptions in 20 years. Volunteers have logged more than 176,800 hours since 1999.

Independent Transportation Network

Donating time and effort to drive housebound seniors can be rewarding in itself, but a nonprofit started in Portland, Maine, adds a bonus for the volunteers. Driving for the Independent Transportation Network, they can accrue credits toward their own future transit needs or rides for family and low-income seniors. The 24-hour organization operates on a membership basis and also uses some paid drivers. It grew from founder Katherine Freund's desire to keep unsafe drivers off the road after an 84-year-old motorist struck her toddler son during the 1980s. From Portland, ITN has spread to 25 cities, serving people 65+ as well as the visually impaired. Riders pay a modest fee, with an average fare of $11. They are guaranteed reliable service with a door-to-door escort and assistance, and may enjoy lasting friendships with drivers, who are often retirees themselves.

Oasis' Catch Healthy Habits

"The sooner we get these kids moving, the better." That's Evelyn Gillespie, a retired schoolteacher who these days can be found with children jumping through hoops—literally—and leading them in other lively games. She and her sister, Rose, also a retired teacher, are volunteers with Catch Healthy Habits, a program of the St. Louis-based Oasis Institute. Devoted to fighting the obesity epidemic, Catch uses teams of volunteers age 50 and older to teach healthy habits to low-income kids in afterschool and summer programs. Each session involves fun exercise, healthy snacks, and a lesson in nutrition. Today, Catch has 1,100 volunteers working in 21 cities nationwide. Since 2011, it has served more than 13,000 K-5 children. Best of all: proven intergenerational results. Not only do the kids get healthier, the volunteers improve their own nutrition and fitness as well.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes

If, as Henry Ford said, "the greatest thing in life is to keep your brain young," there's no question that the University of Utah is on to something great. One locale of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, the U of U offers its mature students an array of noncredit, no-exam courses: "Nuclear Physics" taught by a retired nuclear physicist; "Great Poetry," "History of Iran," "Romantic Composers," "History of Rock and Roll," "iPad Basics and Beyond." Exercise, wine, drawing, constitutional issues, and more topics fill out a slate of intellectually stimulating courses. With grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation, 119 colleges and universities now have established Lifelong Learning Institutes, all geared to adults over 50. Many courses are taught by volunteers, emeritus professors, and retiree experts, and in contrast to many degree-oriented continuing ed programs, they are designed for personal enrichment and the joy of learning.

PACE, Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly

It's no secret that aging at home can be difficult. The complexities of finding and plugging into health and social services alone can stymie one's independence. The Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly is helping people meet this challenge in 105 communities in 31 states. PACE features interdisciplinary professional teams who coordinate support at home and in the community. Building on a San Francisco program launched in 1979, PACE has become a Medicare- and Medicaid-funded option for people age 55 and older who are nursing-home eligible. Care plans are individualized, with PACE providing such necessities as medication, doctors, transportation, and home care. The program also may provide needed services beyond what Medicare and Medicaid cover. Local PACE programs are sponsored by a range of community organizations, including health centers, hospices, and hospitals.


The oldest Americans speak out on behalf of the youngest — that's the theme behind the Seniors4Kids program. The group partners with state and local organizations to advocate for early childhood education and other policies that benefit children. Volunteers age 50 and older are recruited locally and through the national organization to publish opinion articles and letters to the editor, contact state legislators, and take part in national and grassroots campaigns for children's issues. Seniors4Kids has worked in numerous state-based networks, including a recent successful campaign in Kentucky to expand child-care assistance for families, sustaining child-care centers that boost school preparedness. The organization, which has recruited more than 1,500 grassroots volunteers, launched a campaign that attracts prominent people, including Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear and renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, to support its goals.

Workforce Academy for Youth, San Diego County

Foster youth are often at their most vulnerable when they "age out" of the system. It's the time when they begin to grapple with adult responsibilities such as managing bank accounts and applying for college and jobs. In San Diego County, volunteers over age 50 serve as Life Skills Coaches, helping young people navigate their new lives through the county's Workforce Academy for Youth. The eight-year-old program hires and trains foster youth, ages 17 to 21, as six-month interns in county agencies—ranging from land-use positions to jobs in criminal justice and animal control—to prepare them for public sector jobs and encourage them to go to college. Frequently, Life Skills Coaches have backgrounds in fields the interns hope to enter. They provide career insight and enrichment opportunities as well as advice on workplace behavior, job interviews, housing, fulfilling responsibilities, and other issues crucial to self-sufficiency.