VirginiaNavigator steers seniors to services they need

Posted on 06/24/24 by Jeff South

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She had worked as a personal care assistant for more than 50 years. But when her husband suffered a debilitating illness, the woman faced a personal crisis: She was “very worried how we would make ends meet. His medicines ate through our savings.”

Just as the couple’s water and electricity were about to be cut off, a computer-savvy friend offered to help. On the website of a nonprofit organization called VirginiaNavigator, she found “emergency funds to help with our bills and prescriptions, and to connect us with veteran services I never knew existed,” the woman said. “It was a lifesaver until my husband’s health improved.”

That is one of many testimonials to VirginiaNavigator, which describes itself as “the only public-private partnership 501(c)(3) non-profit in the country that utilizes technology and robust community partnerships to help meet the complex needs of older adults, people with disabilities, veterans and their families and caregivers.”

The organization has compiled an online resource directory of more than 27,000 programs regarding health, housing, transportation and numerous other services that can help people in Virginia, said Kim Tarantino, the nonprofit’s deputy director. VirginiaNavigator also created four websites to make it easy for people with different circumstances to search the database:

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VirginiaNavigator Deputy Director Kim Tarantino

Each online portal lets users search for services offered by government agencies, nonprofit groups, geriatricians and other providers both by topic (such as employment, financial planning or technology) and by locality (a specific city or county in Virginia). In addition, the sites offer fact sheets, articles, books, videos and other resources on relevant issues as well as an “Ask an Expert” feature for getting personalized, confidential advice from a professional.

VirginiaNavigator’s family of websites is accessible to the public for free.

“The No. 1 question we get is, ‘Where do I even start?’ So we really tried to distill that – boil that down – so that folks can easily connect with what they need,” Tarantino said.

Adrienne Johnson, VirginiaNavigator’s executive director, said families in crisis often feel overwhelmed by the maze of service providers – each with different rules and procedures. Her organization helps people navigate the labyrinth of bureaucracy and find a path to the assistance they seek.

“You simply enter a topic and select your city or county, and we provide you with the options available right in your local community, as well as a wide range of customized articles, links and other tools to help ensure you’re able to make the best decision based on your needs,” Johnson said.

VirginiaNavigator’s information-and-referral database doesn’t just present a service provider’s web address, phone number or general description. Rather, it allows users to drill down to specific details, including eligibility criteria, the intake process and the cost of services, if any.

Moreover, through the search interface and each service provider’s profile, visitors to VirginiaNavigator’s websites can be assured of finding the most appropriate services close to home.

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Combined, the organization’s sites receive more than 1 million visits annually as users search the database of services for critically needed resources.

“It's very comprehensive. It's objective. It's trusted,” Tarantino said.

How and when VirginiaNavigator got started

Seeds for the organization were planted more than 25 years ago as the internet was taking off, Tarantino said. It was the brainchild of Mark Warner, then a tech-oriented businessman before entering electoral politics. Warner, a Democrat, was governor of Virginia from 2002 to 2006 and has served in the U.S. Senate since 2009.

As a long-distance caregiver for his aging parents, who lived in Connecticut, Warner struggled to find the help they needed, Tarantino said. Warner’s mother, Marjorie, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (she subsequently passed away in 2010 at age 81); the senator’s father, Robert, was 92 when he died in 2018.

Mark Warner had been instrumental in co-founding the Virginia Health Care Foundation and served on that group’s board. At a foundation board retreat in the late 1990s, he suggested harnessing the power of the then-fledgling internet to create a searchable database of services for elderly Virginians.

That idea led to the creation of SeniorNavigator in February 2001.

“During my mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, our family navigated the complexities and challenges of long-term care planning for a parent with dementia,” Warner told AARP.

“While difficult, the experience gave me a deep appreciation for all the incredibly hardworking folks in the senior care community. It also moved me to support the launch of SeniorNavigator, and later, to use my seat in Congress to fight for better resources for those living with Alzheimer’s – from better treatments and cures to comprehensive care planning tools,” said Warner, who co-chairs the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease.

“We must make sure seniors, caregivers and families are equipped with every resource available so they can age with dignity, support and respect.”

Tarantino, who joined the organization’s staff in 2003, said that initially, the group was “just SeniorNavigator and was focused on helping to serve and support older adults and their families and caregivers.”

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“Since that time,” she said, “our organization and our mission have grown” to include corresponding sites for veterans and people with disabilities, and an umbrella organization – VirginiaNavigator – to oversee all the operations.

As a VirginiaNavigator fact sheet explains, “Our robust data-driven consumer websites educate and empower consumers via an accessible ‘high-tech and high-touch’ approach” – providing localized information for everyone from waterfront towns on the Eastern Shore, to the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, to the Capital Beltway suburbs, to the inner cities of Richmond and Norfolk.

Over the years, VirginiaNavigator has won more than a dozen awards and honors. They include a first-place award in 2020 from the Virginia Press Association for Senior Navigator magazine, published in collaboration with The Daily Progress in Charlottesville; the 2019 Innovation in Community Award from the Richmond Technology Council; and a “Best Practices” award from the Southern Gerontological Society in 2016.

But more important than awards, VirginiaNavigator officials say, is the positive feedback the organization gets from the general public.

“We are proud to maintain a strong 98% consumer satisfaction rating,” said Tarantino, who also serves on the No Wrong Door Resource Advisory Council and the Virginia Center on Aging Advisory Committee. She offered several examples of thank-you notes that the organization has received in recent months:

  • An out-of-state resident serving as a long-distance caregiver for a relative in Virginia felt overwhelmed until she found VirginiaNavigator. The group’s websites "provided a light to me out of a scary, dark forest,” the woman said.
  • Another person wrote, “My family and I have been floundering around, not knowing what to do or where to go for help. I’m so glad I found your website! I finally feel like we’re on the right track.”
  • Another caregiver described using VirginiaNavigator’s websites to help a family’s aging parents and a brother with autism. “Through disAbilityNavigator, this family was able to get their needs met quickly, while also making our job easier because all of the information was available on one easy-to-use website.”
  • “You are by far the fastest agency that’s ever returned my call,” wrote one person who turned to VirginiaNavigator for assistance. “And you have understood my needs so well. Thank you!”

VirginiaNavigator, which is based in Chesterfield County, operates on an annual budget of about $1 million. The organization relies on donations and on grants, sponsorships and partnerships with supportive groups, including AARP.

VirginiaNavigator and its websites consistently have received high ratings for transparency, financial health and trustworthiness from groups that evaluate nonprofits, such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

The Lindsay Institute for Innovations in Caregiving

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The Lindsay Institute for Innovations in Caregiving Founder Dr. Richard Lindsay

The institute is the most recent addition to VirginiaNavigator’s constellation of websites. It was co-founded in 2013 by Dr. Richard Lindsay, former head of geriatric medicine at the University of Virginia, and Gordon Walker, retired CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, to “preserve and improve the wellness of family caregivers, with a special focus on the Alzheimer’s caregiver.”

The institute says its ultimate goal is “to improve caregivers’ self-care and their ability to manage emotional stressors and tough decisions while bolstering their access to the latest technologies and community resources.”

Lindsay is a professor emeritus of internal medicine and family practice at U.Va., as well as a member of VirginiaNavigator’s board of directors and past president of the American Geriatric Society.

For decades, Lindsay has advised state and federal officials about aging issues. The National Institute of Aging selected him to develop a curriculum, fellowship training program and continuing education program in geriatric medicine. At age 90, Lindsay continues to teach part-time at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

He said he started specializing in geriatric medicine in the 1970s at the suggestion of a U.Va. colleague. He then did a fellowship in England, which “was way ahead of the United States, and still is in some respects, regarding services for older people.” Studies show that the U.S. continues to trail other high-income countries in the health and care of older residents.

As his own parents aged, Lindsay said, he found that it wasn’t just elderly patients who needed help – their caregivers did, too.

Lindsay’s mother developed Alzheimer’s; his father was a country doctor practicing in upstate New York, 50 miles from the nearest hospital. In both instances, as Lindsay helped with care, he came to realize “the importance of one factor that often had been overlooked – the family caregiver.”

“You depended on members of the family to carry out what your medical program was,” Lindsay said. “Over the years, I also began to realize that caregiving itself is detrimental to people’s health” because it takes a toll in terms of physical demands and stress.

Health concerns for older people and their caregivers will rise as the U.S. population ages. In 2022, there were 58 million Americans age 65 and older – 17% of the total population. By 2050, projections show, there will be 82 million U.S. residents in that age bracket – almost a quarter of all Americans.

The Lindsay Institute helps address caregivers’ needs in several ways. Besides providing a searchable database of services and a library of resources, it offers the Caregiver Tech Tool Finder – a curated list of technology especially suited to caregiving. It catalogs the best apps and tools on such topics as:

  • Helping people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Wellness and self-care, including meditation and lowering anxiety.
  • How family members can coordinate their care efforts and efficiently manage time.
  • Healthy aging, including improving mental acuity.
  • Medication management.
  • Smart home devices, such as door alarms and tools to call for help in an emergency.
  • Social connectedness, to build and maintain a support network.

The Lindsay Institute also has sponsored hackathons – competitions in which interdisciplinary teams of students from Virginia colleges and universities design new tools to help family caregivers maintain their physical and emotional well-being.

The institute’s website includes information for intergenerational caregivers as well: grandparents taking care of grandchildren, for example, and young people taking care of elderly relatives, said Lindsay, who serves on the national advisory board for the American Association of Caregiving Youth.

Moreover, he advocates for legislation such as the RAISE Family Caregivers Act. (The acronym stands for Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage.) The proposed federal law would provide tax credits and other assistance for family caregivers.

Lindsay said he constantly tries to make people – especially legislators – aware of caregivers’ needs. Experts estimate that family caregivers provide unpaid services worth about $600 billion a year.

“People have to realize that the vast majority of care for the older population of this country is not done by doctors and nurses – the people in the white coats,” he said. “It’s done by family members.”

For more information about VirginiaNavigator, you can:

This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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