Some Thoughts On Older Americans Month

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May is Older Americans Month, a time to recognize the impact that seniors have had on our lives. It is also a time to ponder how future generations might judge how we have cared for those who used to care for us.

In the early 2010s, property investors in Detroit began cashing in on the improving real estate market. They began redeveloping their properties to serve a younger, more affluent clientele as policymakers devised opportunities to attract this demographic. Perhaps underscoring this effort is an infamous advertisement that appeared on a building in downtown Detroit with the caption, “See Detroit Like We Do,” which featured young, white people. The company apologized for the ad, recognizing the message’s tone deafness in a city that is over 80% African-American. But what neither the company nor the outcry acknowledged is that in addition to the message’s bias against people of color, there was also an unconscious preference for younger people over seniors.

There are more than 2,000 older adults who live in senior apartment buildings in Midtown and downtown Detroit. Many of them wonder whether they will be forced to move as properties convert to market rate condominiums and apartments. Some of these conversions reserve a percentage of the units, usually 20% or less, for low income; however, the price points are still considerably higher than what seniors previously paid. Unable to afford the new rents, they are forced to relocate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified that displacement can result in negative health consequences for vulnerable populations like senior citizens. A significant risk is social isolationism, which has been associated with dementia, increased risk for hospital readmission, and higher mortality. Recent research has shown that social isolation may be as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a proposal that would increase rent payments on the nation’s poorest. If legislation passes, the impact on seniors won’t be immediate, but six years after the law is in effect, the maximum rents on older adults living in subsidized housing will rise as well, which might mean unplanned relocations and substandard living conditions.

These proposed changes come at a time when the U.S. economy is doing better. There’s low unemployment. Several companies are reporting record profits. In fact, our country is doing so well that we gave corporations massive tax cuts under the premise that companies will re-invest in factories and equipment, keeping our economy humming for a long time.

On the other hand, the left has argued that today’s tax cuts will create massive deficits that will have our economy singing out of tune in the years to come. There are some on the right who have already put forth proposals to cut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, the safety net programs for older adults.

In conjunction with Older Americans Month, we shouldn’t just recognize our older citizens, but begin a movement that ensures that seniors are valued in our nation year-round. After all, it has been their sweat and hard work that has made our communities and country strong.

We need to think about what future generations might see as they look back on us. Will they see that we came together with a purpose to maintain and safeguard the programs and supports that older adults have earned, or will they be horrified that we set the people who once cared for us out on metaphorical ice floes? In the end, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, they will judge us on how we treated the most vulnerable among us.

Ellen Kayrod Fisher

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It is with heavy hearts and immense gratitude that Hannan Center shares the passing of Ellen Kayrod Fisher who was a member of the Hannan team for more than forty years.

Joining the organization as a social worker, Ellen was eventually promoted to executive director. Per her account, she did not know about the promotion until she was asked to attend a Board of Trustees meeting. At that time, the Board met in the Detroit Club, which barred women. Ellen had to enter by taking an elevator in the adjoining Free Press building and sneaking through the back door. That clandestine meeting was the beginning of her service as the executive director which lasted for three decades.

Ellen led Hannan successfully through two significant changes. The first was the building of Hannan House, which transitioned the organization from serving low-income older people in their own homes to serving seniors in a residential setting. Many years after Hannan House was built, some subsidized, low-income senior apartment buildings were constructed in the immediate area. These buildings provided apartments that were much more attractive to independent older adults than the single rooms with congregate dining that Hannan House provided. Ellen realized that Hannan could not compete with these new options and that the organization should look at alternative ways that the building and its resources could be used to serve seniors in need. After a strategic planning process that included a needs assessment by the Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology and an advisory committee of senior service providers, Hannan Foundation decided to convert its building from a residence into a center where Hannan would provide services and programs to older adults living in the community. Today, twenty five years after that transition, Hannan continues to meet the changing needs of metro Detroit area seniors, and promote creative and purposeful activity that enriches their lives.

After retiring, Ellen, who had been a widow for some years, married a long-time friend, Blake Fisher, who was also a widower. They lived in Newaygo, Michigan until his death, upon which she returned to the Detroit area.

Former executive director, Tim Wintermute, shared the following sentiments, “Ellen was a champion for low-income older adults and a true “servant leader” who believed strongly in Hannan’s mission. She was a friendly, gracious and compassionate person, always quick with a smile, a positive comment, and encouragement. Her ability to listen and put people at ease was remarkable. Ellen was also quite humble and quick to credit others and downplay her own contributions. In fact, many people had no idea that she was the person chiefly responsible for calmly and competently steering Hannan through these dramatic and difficult changes. In fact, she actually didn’t want any fuss when she retired and was completely surprised when the art gallery was named in her honor.”

I had the opportunity to meet Ellen on a couple of occasions, and each time she would share her love for the organization and its mission. We appreciate her contributions to our work and the field of aging, and for that, her memory will always have a place here at Hannan.


Vincent Tilford
Executive Director