The Kupuna Collective is leveraging relationships built during the Covid-era to address big challenges facing the state’s aging population.

Every Tuesday morning, Virna Cheung sits down in a chair in her brother’s Hawaii Kai home, opens up an iPad, and checks in with a group of nearly two dozen senior citizens from across the islands joining her for a session of chair yoga. 

Some of the participants sit together in the meeting room of a senior housing complex where they go to pick up a week’s supply of individually packaged meals. Others log on from home to chat with friends, practice mindfulness techniques and enjoy some of the socialization they would have previously received by attending a group meal service. 

“That’s what makes a live class — even though it’s on Zoom — more interesting than just doing something on YouTube,” said Cheung, who tailors her stretches based on what people share about their needs at the start of the session. 

Residents of Pohulani, a senior apartment facility, practice chair yoga in a hybrid class led by Virna Cheung. (Courtesy: Lanakila Pacific Meals on Wheels/2023)

The class, which is offered through Lanakila Pacific’s Meals on Wheels program, is part of an effort to design virtual and hybrid “congregate dining” activities — just one of many experiments coming out of The Kupuna Collective, a group of more than 200 organizations and individuals that formed in response to the pandemic and is now focusing its attention on the many issues facing Hawaii seniors.

Hawaii has one of the fastest aging populations in the country. Roughly 1 in 5 people in the state are over the age of 65. A growing number of those seniors are childless or are without family nearby, and will need innovative solutions to help them age comfortably in a state with one of the highest costs of living and a significant shortage of health care workers and caregivers.

Together, members of the collective are looking for new ways to address workforce challenges, reduce food insecurity, develop new technology and jumpstart conversations about what it means to age well in the islands. 

“The collective is really helping all of us in our spaces to be brave, to step out, to partner,” said Tammy Smith, director of kitchens at King Lunalilo Trust. “I think it has allowed all of us to say, ‘What more can we do?’”

‘From Desperation Comes Inspiration’ 

The collective officially formed last year, but it really started with an urgent need early in the pandemic. 

In March 2020, as Honolulu residents settled in for the state’s first pandemic stay-at-home order, the city’s elderly affairs division was quickly inundated with phone calls from senior citizens in need of food. The intense demand for assistance caught the office by surprise and was far more than staff could handle. 

“We were desperate,” said Derrick Ariyoshi, who heads the division. “We didn’t have the capacity to be able to meet the needs of the community.

Ariyoshi started reaching out to nonprofits and community groups, who quickly rallied together. They held a telethon, applied for federal grants, set up hotlines, delivered more than a million meals and helped roll out one of the most successful senior vaccine campaigns in the nation.

The Kupuna Collective holds monthly Zoom meetings to collaborate on issues facing Hawaii’s aging population. (Courtesy: The Kupuna Collective/2023)

Ariyoshi says his department’s mantra during the pandemic was the adage “from desperation comes inspiration.” The inspiration was a new sense of what is possible when nonprofits, government agencies and individual advocates and caregivers are able to collaborate — and truly coordinate — their efforts.

Ariyoshi’s office was able to help apply for federal funds and funnel them to smaller nonprofits that wouldn’t typically have access to larger grants. Organizations teamed up to provide technical support, offer resources and connections, provide advice from their own experiences.

The momentum was too good to let it end with Covid relief efforts.

“We learned from our experience during this pandemic that community issues can (best) be defined and addressed by community-based solutions,” said Lindsey Ilagan, Kupuna Program manager at Hawaii Public Health Institute.

Too often communities aren’t given the space and funding to propose solutions that best work for them, Ilagan said.

Big Plans Ahead 

The collective is designed to be an innovation incubator, said Christy Nishita, director of the Center on Aging, which partnered with HIPHI to formalize the collective and provide administrative support to keep it going.

The group meets once a month and sets aside time at each meeting to brainstorm ideas. 

At a recent meeting, Smith from King Lunalilo Trust used the opportunity to talk about the Native Hawaiian-focused nonprofit’s plans to expand its meal service to the west side of Oahu. The breadth of questions and suggestions that she received in that one meeting was something that would have been hard to get on her own, Smith said.

“They really are a wealth of information and they share it,” said Smith, who added that support from the collective helped Lunalilo go from serving 60,000 meals a year to 200,000 meals a year during the pandemic.

A key focus area for the collective will be workforce development, Nishita said, because it is an issue that impacts all of the group’s members.

The collective recently received more than $1 million in federal funding through Rep. Ed Case’s office for a pilot program to train kupuna support navigators who can help seniors and their families find the services they need.

Nishita said the collective will put out a call for mini-proposals from member organizations, and then distribute funding through subcontracts to a few organizations. Her office will then analyze the impact of the navigator programs over the course of a one-year pilot.

A big part of what the collective will do moving forward is provide data support to help analyze what’s working and track impact, something Nishita’s team is doing for Lanakila Pacific’s new congregate dining programs and KupunaU, a virtual platform for enrichment activities and social engagement — another effort that grew out of the pandemic but is continuing as the nonprofit looks at how to best serve older residents.

“We are cultivating a community of seniors who are more active, who possess a higher affinity to technology than we previously realized,” said James Li, program manager at Lanakila Pacific.

Supporting seniors in being active and engaged is ultimately the goal driving the collective’s work.

“We’re not only trying to meet their immediate health and wellness needs, we’re also trying to amplify the voices of kupuna to hold space for them to define their needs and propose solutions that best serve them and their ohana,” Ilagan said.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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