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Ralston Center, at 200, launches aging-in-place initiative in W. Philly

If you've ever walked by the stately redbrick building at 3615 Chestnut St., you've strolled past Philadelphia's first home for indigent and elderly women, the Ralston Center, which this year celebrates 200 years of working with seniors.

In 1817, Sarah Ralston, the wife of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, tackled the vexing issue of how to care compassionately for the city's aged population. She joined other well-to-do women in starting the Indigent Widows and Single Women's Society, which grew from 30 tenants in 1817 to more than 100 on completion of its Wilson Bros. & Co.-designed building on Chestnut between 36th and 37th Streets. At the time, many women died penniless and homeless because of laws dictating that they had no control over assets.

Although the Chestnut Street structure still stands, what came to be known as the Ralston Center no longer offers housing there. Instead, it works to help Philadelphia seniors who want to age in place - that is, live and grow old in their own homes.

"Our biggest challenges are isolation and poverty" among seniors, the center's CEO, Joe Lukach, said at its 200th anniversary celebration this month. "We estimate that in the nearest five zip codes, there are 60,000 seniors and the majority live below the poverty level. So we're working with other partners to fill in the gaps."

Said Jim Whitely, board chair of Friends Society for the Aging, a Quaker nonprofit and donor to the Ralston Center: "We don't want seniors to lose their dignity by being institutionalized. We encourage them to stay in their homes, and instead make the city easier to age in."

The Ralston Center uses about 15 percent of its building now, leasing the rest to physicians working at places such as Penn's Gerontology and Geriatric Care Center and the Center for the Study of Aging, as well as a geriatric nursing program. It houses well-known Alzheimer's doctors such as Jason Karlawish, a professor in geriatrics, at the Ralston-Penn Center.

In 2013, the Ralston board began exploring the idea of an "age-friendly initiative" in West Philadelphia, a collaboration of 50 local community organizations and city government, and in 2016 it launched it to the public, Lukach said.

Age-Friendly West Philadelphia is one of three projects ongoing whose aims include alleviating social isolation of the elderly, addressing access to fresh food, and piloting ways in which public parks and spaces can be made safer and more inviting for older people.

"Social isolation is pervasive," Lukach said, so access to and navigation of existing resources is needed.

The center is working with the Mantua Civic Association, for instance, to offer communal cooking classes for fresh food and soup donations, and to engage local volunteers to come give their time at Ralston.

Another major program overseen by the center's board is Ralston My Way, with membership free for any resident in its service area who is age 55 or older. It is a licensed, nonprofit home-care agency serving anyone in northwest Philadelphia, with the mission of helping improve the quality of life for seniors aging independently in their communities.

My Way is a one-stop shop, with caregivers performing a variety of in-home services for members, including home care - such as assistance with activities of daily living, personal care, and respite care - transportation, housecleaning, handyman repairs, yard work, and more. Rates average about $22 an hour.

In May 2010, its first full month of operation, Ralston My Way had 35 members. Today, the number is approaching 3,500.

Again, the Quakers stepped in to help start a Ralston program. "Friends Foundation for the Aging is one of our founders," said Eric Wilden, executive director of Ralston My Way.

"My Way was Ralston's idea," Wilden said. "They closed the [residential] facility in the 1980s, and around 2007-2008 they really committed to serving seniors who age in place in their homes. Housing stock here means seniors living in bigger, older homes.

"There's also a large population falling in the gap - they don't qualify for public assistance but don't have cash to spend out of pocket for these services. So we keep the rates lower" than market price for most services, he added.

Ralston My Way is now serving seniors in the neighborhoods of Germantown, Mount Airy, West Oak Lane, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough and Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, and has plans to expand to West Philadelphia.

For information, call 215-525-5470.