Offering seniors a path to maintain independence

Karen Berry-Elbert

By Karen Berry-Elbert

Most seniors want to remain in their own homes for the rest of their lives, but often that’s not possible without some help. Ninety-five-year-old Sam Kaufman found a way to maintain his independence through the St. Louis Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC). 

“If it wasn’t for the NORC programs and free cab service, I wouldn’t get out of the house,” he says. 

He also appreciates the work St. Louis NORC volunteers have done around his house—raking leaves, fixing a leak, getting his sliding doors back on track. “It takes a big load off me,” says Kaufman. “Physically, I couldn’t rake leaves; if I bent down, I couldn’t get up. And since my only income is Social Security benefits, I can’t afford to pay for these services.”

Kaufman is lucky to live in the service area of this unique program, which began in 2004 with funding from the U.S. Administration on Aging and the State of Missouri. The St. Louis NORC, one of 40 NORC programs located in 25 states, offers a path for adults 65 and older to maintain quality of life and age in their own homes. 

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We live in a time of unprecedented growth in the nation’s older adult population. In 2006, 37 million people age 65 and older lived in the United States, accounting for just over 12 percent of the total population. According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, by 2030, that number will likely double and grow to 71.5 million. At that point, older adults will represent nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population. There will likely be an accompanying increase in the need for imaginative ways to keep seniors healthy, active and independent.

By providing opportunities for socialization, fitness, and intellectual stimulation and services like adding safety features to homes, programs like the NORC can extend a senior’s self-sufficiency for years. 

That not only makes good emotional and physical sense, it also makes good economic sense.  Keeping seniors out of nursing homes means a savings for taxpayers. In 2013, the cost of supporting one St. Louis NORC member in her home was $420 a year, compared with the Missouri average cost of $52,830 a year for a semi-private nursing home bed. We potentially save the state more than $52,000 a year for every older adult we help keep in her own home. 

In 2013, less than 1 percent of St. Louis NORC participants moved to nursing homes, and from 2004 to 2013, that number was only 2 percent. The state average for adults 65 years and older moving into nursing homes is approximately 4 percent. And when NORC residents did move into nursing homes, they did so at an average age of 87, contrasted with the national average of 82.6 years. Each year a senior stays at home saves the state money.

Beyond the bottom line are considerable health benefits. St. Louis NORC’s 1,400+ activities include partnerships with the Jewish Community Center, a discounted emergency response system, day trips and social activities, discounts at local merchants, and safety adaptations through the Washington University Occupational Therapy Clinical Practice. 

While services are provided only to residents in the three-mile area surrounding the Jewish Community Center campus in Creve Coeur, activities are open to all adults aged 65 and older. Since 2004, more than 1,714 individuals have participated in at least one activity.  

Margie Cheung, a 72-year-old St. Louis NORC member, takes advantage of the member outings. “A good part of your health is your social life,” says Cheung. “Without the NORC outings, I could sit here and watch TV all the time. NORC helps me keep my body and mind moving.” 

While currently we operate the only NORC Supportive Service Program in Missouri, another aging-in-place model recently started in St. Louis city, others are on the horizon, and another NORC is taking shape across the state.  

In our 10th anniversary year, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute to the hard work and success of the St. Louis NORC than the new program that will grow in Kansas City’s urban core. We wish them a community of happy seniors like Sam Kaufman and Margie Cheung.

Karen Berry-Elbert is the manager of the St. Louis Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2014.