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As people grow older and getting around gets difficult, seniors can become isolated, said Madison Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney. That can be a problem for all elderly people, but it’s especially problematic in the African-American community, she said.

Harrington-McKinney attended a Tuesday discussion hosted by the North/Eastside Senior Coalition (NESCO) titled “Addressing the Needs of African-American Aging Adults.” Attendees said a lack of culturally competent services and few spaces aimed at African-American seniors make isolation a particular problem for Madison's African-American elders.

The discussion took place at Mount Zion Baptist Church, and was moderated by Marcus Allen, the church's pastor, and Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

A few dozen people attended the discussion, including representatives from organizations like Area Agency on Aging of Dane County, the Middleton, Fitchburg and Madison Senior Centers, and the Goodman Community Center.

“It’s so important for us to have this forum,” said Toya Johnson, the director of Community Impact: Self Reliance and Independence at the United Way of Dane County. “Because when you have programs that are addressing the needs of African Americans, you want African Americans at the table.”

“I think it’s important to hear everybody in the community. And why not listen to seniors? They have wisdom, and they have a lot of needs,” Anthony said.

NESCO has run a cultural diversity program for Latino and African-American seniors for years, but recently received additional funding that will allow them to expand services.

The program serves about 250 adults, about 150 of whom are African-American, said Jim Krueger, executive director at NESCO, and includes discussion and diabetes support groups. Their primary goal going forward is to reduce isolation among African-American seniors, and they also want to draw more African-American men to their programming.

They’re also looking to partner with other community organizations and churches to pool resources. They serve adults in Fitchburg and Sun Prairie, and transporting seniors to their programs is a major cost.

“We know we can’t do it by ourselves, we need all of you out there,” Krueger said.

The Urban League and Mount Zion were taking advantage of the talk to learn how to improve services to African-American seniors.

The Urban League has put on an IT Academy for seniors the last few years in partnership with UW-Madison Continuing Studies. Anthony got the idea after giving his mom an iPad and watching her connect to friends and family members on social media. (So much so that her grandkids blocked her on Facebook, he joked.) The Urban League also takes senior trips to American Players Theater, with golf carts available to transport patrons up the long hill to the stage.

Allen said that over half of his congregation is made up of seniors. He said many times congregations focus on youth programs, but forget about the seniors.

“Being the pastor of a church, I do not have the liberty of being responsible just for one age group,” he said. “I try my best to bridge the gap between the generations.”

Allen has only been in Madison for about a year, but at his last church, he started a weekly senior get-together with a meal, games and education. He’d like to eventually establish a similar program at Mount Zion.

Allen and Anthony opened up the discussion to the group, asking attendees to list the issues and needs of elderly African-American population in Dane County. Lack of transportation and isolation came up as major concerns.

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Attendees pointed out that isolation can be especially tough due to the dearth of social outlets for African-Americans.

“There’s not a whole lot of things for specifically African-Americans, and certainly not a whole lot of things for African-American seniors,” Anthony said. “I think they need gathering places. You can see by the numbers here ... I think they're having more fun just having conversations and interactions with each other.”

For older African-Americans, church is often the center of social life, Harrington-McKinney said, but those who don’t attend church are left with few options.

Attendees also pointed to a lack of cultural competency in existing senior programs. Meals on Wheels might not serve food that elders grew up with or are comfortable eating, they said. Senior also may struggle to find a doctor who looks like them, and face significant health disparities.

Additionally, a disproportionate number of African-American men return home after years of incarceration, and can struggle to find housing or connect with their families. Attendees also said that some African-American grandparents have to “become parents all over again,” as they raise their grandchildren.

Elders are oftentimes overshadowed and overlooked, Harrington-McKinney said, and people assume they don’t have anything to contribute. But with so much life experience, retired seniors are a valuable resource that the community needs to tap into, she said.

“I’m 71 years old and I’m an alder. I’m excited to be working for the people in my district. I still have so much to give, and I’m not unique in that way,” she said.

The audience brainstormed solutions, thinking about ways to form collaborations and find funding for projects, but this was just the beginning of the discussion, organizers said. Dane County and NESCO will meet in the following week to identify action steps, and plan to hold more discussions in the future.

“This is vital,” Johnson said. “This population is not going anywhere.”

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