Key Takeaways

  • Community-based organizations share some creative and thoughtful approaches to ensuring older adults receive information on the federal, state, and local benefit programs that help them make ends meet.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to be flexible and responsive by offering online versions of previously in-person classes and staying in tune with people's needs. 

  • By actively listening and adapting to the needs of the communities they serve, community-based organizations are an essential part of ensuring equitable aging for everyone. 

Community-based organIzations (CBOs) play a critically important role in ensuring everyone can age well in America. 

This snapshot will provide:

  • Insights into three culturally and geographically distinct community-based organizations
  • Helpful tips gleaned directly from staff experiences on conducting outreach around benefits for older adults
  • An inside look into how professionals in aging and disability services can enhance their awareness of the richness of community based-organizations with a deep history of engagement in addressing the needs of older adults, caregivers, and their families.

In Spring of 2022, the NCOA Center for Benefits Access conducted a series of training workshops on the importance of our Equity Promise, use of BenefitsCheckUp®, and discussions around messaging best practices and connecting to older adults in culturally responsive and innovative ways.

Because one of the greatest barriers to accessing services has become low-digital competency and lack of broadband access and affordability within the communities these organizations serve, their staff took creative and thoughtful approaches to ensuring that older adults received information on the federal, state, and local benefit programs that would help them make ends meet.

Here’s a look at how they did it, tips for how others can learn from their successes, and examples of networks in each community working toward equitable aging for all.

How three community-based organizations are meeting older adults where they are

PARS Equality Center, Los Angeles, California

  • Population: 3,898,747
  • People 65 years and over: 12.9%
  • People with a disability, under age 65 years: 6.4%
  • Median household income (in 2020 dollars): $65,290

“PARS is home away from home for refugees and immigrants,” explains Peyman Malaz, senior director of Pars Equality Center Los Angeles. “PARS Equality Center was established in 2010 by providing legal services and added a much-needed Social Services Department in 2012. It was the first community-based non-profit organization providing direct legal and social services to the Iranian American community, particularly for asylees, and vulnerable noncitizens.”

older adults in a classroom
Older adults participating in a basic computer class offered by PARS Equality Center, Los Angeles

Enrollment in public benefits, basic computer classes and case management are just a few of the difference-making services the Pars Equality Center provides today.  In pairing the providing of these bedrock services with a flexible approach to meeting the needs of those the organization wishes to help, the center has found ways to achieve its aims under even the most difficult of circumstances. For example, in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization had to convert its English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to a virtual environment, via Zoom. This effort led to computer classes for older adults becoming increasingly popular, and it wasn’t long before those initially seeking to become more proficient in English had also achieved mastery of things like arranging Zoom meetings and using online food delivery services.

In a world which isn’t always as great as it should be at ensuring that all members of every community are treated with the warmth and comfort a home represents, Peyman and his team have continued to grow and adapt their approach, creating a sanctuary for those in need of a welcoming environment absent of the barriers found elsewhere to access the services they need.     

Thea Bowman Center, Cleveland, Ohio

  • Population: 372,624
  • People 65 years and over: 14.3%
  • People with a disability, under age 65 years: 15.8%
  • Median household income (in 2020 dollars): $31,838

As the needs of the community they serve have evolved since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Seniors Services Coordinator BJ Brown and her team at the Thea Bowman Center (TBC) have prioritized an approach that reflects an adaptiveness and evolution important during these challenging and ever-changing times. 

“We try to meet the actual needs of the community, not just something that looks good on paper,” explains Bowman, in outlining how the TBC team redefines its mission to better achieve its aims. 

“During the isolation phase of the pandemic, we updated our strategic plan, and our new mission statement is, ‘We listen to the people of Mt. Pleasant, Learn, and Do what they Want and Need.’”

The Thea Bowman Center primarily serves the Mount Pleasant community in southeast Cleveland, Ohio, by offering various services for seniors such as computer classes, assistance with health insurance applications (including Medicaid and SNAP), a community pantry (which never closed during the pandemic), a GED program, and even a collaborative community garden. 

food donations at a food pantry in alleyway
A recent Thea Bowman Center outing featured a train ride in Cuyahoga Valley

In maintaining a flexible approach that is tailored to meet the changing needs of those they seek to assist, the TBC team has been able to foster the trust that's necessary for the success of any community-based organization. A recent case in which a visually impaired older adult who requires insulin was connected with the Kidney Foundation, which prescribed pre-filled pens to avoid overdosages and underdosages, stands as just one example among many of the importance trust and active engagement with the community play in the TBC fulfilling its mission.

As Brown so aptly said, “Our little bitty center provides hope for this community. They reach out to us because they trust us, and we honor that privilege by doing what we can to assist.”

Borderland Rainbow Center, El Paso, Texas

  • Population: 678,815
  • People 65 years and over: 12.9%
  • People with a disability, under age 65 years: 9.2%
  • Median household income (in 2020 dollars): $48,866

Senior Services Coordinator Soledad Martinez and her team at Borderland Rainbow Center understand that responding to the needs of a community is impossible without understanding its culture. 

El Paso, the nation's 20th largest city, is a 15-minute drive from New Mexico and, at 80% Hispanic, makes "us proudly bicultural as a community," Martinez said. "The seniors we serve, many of them only understand English or only know enough to get by. This means that outreach has to have a strong focus on Spanish language materials.

“To ensure cultural appropriateness, we are looking at not just the materials themselves, but looking at their context here in our border community," she said.

I think one thing is to make sure the folks delivering the services are culturally competent…In short, doing your research beforehand, and being open to critique helps ensure culture appropriateness.”

In pairing their cultural awareness with a creative approach to outreach, the Borderland Rainbow Center team has been able to cater to the needs of their community in ways that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.  BenefitsCheckUp is a comprehensive, web-based service tool linking older adults with limited income and resources to services and benefits programs.

women playing bingo
A Borderland Rainbow Center bingo game highlghing BenefitsCheckUp

As part of an effort to educate their community and ensure that thousands of dollars in potential benefits do not go unclaimed, Martinez’s team reinvented Loteria (the popular Mexican bingo game) and recoined it as Loteria Con Derechos (Loteria With Benefits). By using a familiar and accessible activity to help explain things which might otherwise seem unfamiliar and inaccessible, Soledad and her team have successfully created pathways to engagement with those they seek to serve.

Community-based organizations are key to equitable aging

Aging well should be a right, not a privilege, and without community-based organizations actively listening and adapting to the needs of the communities they serve, equitable aging would remain a goal always pursued and never realized. 

By pairing the unique approaches developed at a local level by community-based organizations with the nationwide resources and networking power offered by NCOA, a future in which everyone is afforded the access needed to age comfortably is within our grasp. 

As our Equity Promise states, “Our fight for equitable aging is one day at a time, one step at a time, but most importantly, done together.”

Photos courtesy the PARS Equality Center, Thea Bowman Center, and Borderland Rainbow Center