Growing old gracefully has a new meaning for today’s seniors who are aging in place with assistance from Ursuline Support Services in southwestern Pennsylvania.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Aging 2016-2020 report on the state plan on aging, there are 12.8 million residents in Pennsylvania. From that number, 2.9 million are adults ages 60 and over with 300,000 who are 85 years plus.
By 2020, it is estimated that the 85 years and older age group will increase by 25 percent to 20,000 persons.
Anthony Turo, executive director of USS, stressed a need for ongoing resources for the elderly in a state with the fastest growing demographic group for residents over 85.
“Aging is already here with the ‘silver tsunami or baby boomers,’” he said.
USS (formerly Ursuline Senior Services) is a nonprofit, charitable organization that provides ongoing life-transition services with guardianship, protective/supportive services and independence support services. It is an active member of the National Guardianship Association with more than 75 percent of the staff nationally certified guardians.
Currently, the organization serves some 3,000 people primarily in Allegheny County and in other counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.
While Pennsylvania has the second highest number of seniors with Florida being first, Turo said Floridians tend to be more affluent retirees. He said the area often has what the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging terms “rebound seniors” or individuals who retire to Florida and return if they lose their spouse or have poor health.
“We have one of the best health care systems in the country and they may come back here because they have better health care,” he said. “Even though we may be second in actual numbers of seniors, I believe we are actually first in the number of seniors who require the types of services we provide.”
With seniors maintaining their independence longer, he feels the services USS provides enable them to maintain their lifestyle.
“When you look at how different 65 is today compared to 30-40 years ago when everybody was retiring, people continue to work well into their 70s,” he noted. “There’s evidence that attention to ongoing health and wellness in the middle years is changing things.”
“They have the opportunity to age in place,” pointed out Karen Miller-Tobin, director of Independence Support Services. She oversees the program’s recruitment, training and retention of volunteers for an average of 100 participants ranging in age from 45 to over 100 years old.
For many older adults, life transitions in aging leave them feeling uncertain, unprotected and sometimes unable to remain in their own home.
“Many seniors don’t want to leave their communities,” she said. “Services like ours provide another layer of options for them.” The organization does not provide assistance if someone is a resident in an assisted living facility, personal care home or nursing home.
There are three main home support services available under the program that Miller-Tobin oversees that connects participants with volunteer support:
• Checks and balances: bill paying and representative payee.
• Cart to Heart: grocery shopping.
• Service coordination: a contract with the housing authority in the city of Pittsburgh to provide social service supports for seniors and the disabled.
Following an assessment from referrals, such as the AAA, she trains and coordinates some 25 volunteers from their late 20s to 70s who are either working or retired professionals with various skills and expertise.
One volunteer has been serving for 10 years. Volunteers also interact with USS office staff for administrative, bill paying and shopping. Schedules are assigned with the participant’s agreement for weekly to once or twice a month visits. If needed, the Department of Aging provides interpreters.
“The volunteers not only bring their skill set, they are another resource for both the organization and the participant,” she said.
She has noticed how volunteer involvement makes a difference in the lives of participants. In some situations they consider the volunteer an extension of their family. They are able to remain where they live so the services are almost customized to them.
“That’s what we all want,” she said. “That type of stability as we’re aging. They don’t have to live in transition.”
Turo referred to the way care is provided as the “Ursuline Way.” He said they may not always be able to help someone with the original services they were referred to them for, but they will find a way to connect them. “We rarely say, ‘We can’t help you,’” he said. He added, “We will find a way to help them.”
He always had a vision for USS to be an organization that can fill a need in the community, be responsive and address the needs that come to their attention.
“We will always, first and foremost, have a responsibility to the senior community but we’re seeing an increase in the number of people with disabilities, especially mental health and drugs and alcohol issues that need the types of services we provide,” he said.
The organizational mission to give and help others is rooted in the charism and legacy of the Ursuline Sisters. They served at Ursuline Academy in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh from 1894-1981. The sisters taught girls from 9th–12th grades at the high school they founded. Due to low enrollment, the school closed and merged with Lawrenceville Catholic High School. Today the building is now used by the Waldorf School.
When the school closed, the sisters undertook a study to determine the needs of residents and opportunities to minister in the community. Through Ursuline Center they provided child care, Welfare-to-Work training and noticed many people who were aging in place. They contacted the AAA to provide care management for people living at home but needed resources.
In 1993, Ursuline Senior Services began but was no longer operated by the religious community. In 2014, the program was expanded to Ursuline Support Services. This was the foundation for the services that exist today.
Ursuline Sister Rita Joseph Jarrell, ministered for six years as the last principal at Ursuline Academy until 1981. She is retired and resides at the motherhouse in Louisville, Kentucky. With the support of Sister Elaine Eckart, a social worker and graduate of Ursuline Academy in Pittsburgh, they transitioned to USS.
A 2018 Coeur d’Ursuline Biennial All-Class Reunion was organized by Sister Rita and held in October. She attended the second reunion that began with a reception at USS in Squirrel Hill. Dinner was at Lombardozzi’s Restaurant in Bloomfield and an afternoon tour of the former Ursuline Academy was held.
“The charism of the Ursuline Sisters is much the same spirit of giving and helping the people in the area,” reflected Sister Rita.
For more information, visit the website at www.ursulinesupportservices.org or call 412-224-4700 or 1-888-474-3388.