Standing inside north Tulsa’s Carver Senior Center, longtime director Birdie Clifton is holding court.
Flanked by guests taking a break from playing card games and dominoes, Clifton explains the necessity for the facility she’s run at 1208 E. Pine St. for the past 28 years.
“They’ve taken everything from north Tulsa and moved it east and south,” Clifton said with sincere conviction.
The they, explained Clifton, are previous city leaders who, according to the woman, left its most vulnerable residents without recourse to consistently acquire basic needs and services.
The most recent data indicates that life expectancy disparities between post-retirement age residents who live in certain north Tulsa ZIP codes compared to other areas of the city have improved, but local stakeholders conclude there is still much work to be done to decrease the gap further.
A 2015 report assembled by the Tulsa Health Department called “Narrowing the Gap” cited efforts made by community leaders and officials to address the socioeconomic issues that lead to the varying life expectancy outcomes.
The report found that residents in north Tulsa live 10.7 fewer years than south Tulsa residents, which was an improvement of 3.1 years compared to the Health Department data compiled in 2002 that found the difference was 13.8 years.
The improvement in the disparity gap was due in large part to more than $46 million in public and private funds invested in health care facilities in north Tulsa: $15 million in Vision 2025 funds for Morton Comprehensive Health Services, $20 million for the OU Wayman Tisdale Specialty Health Clinic, $10 million for the Tulsa Health Department’s North Regional Health and Wellness Center, and other investments in Crossover Health Services and the Hutcherson YMCA.
The 2018 Equality Indicators report found that south Tulsans who identified as senior citizens lived 13 years longer than north Tulsa seniors. The 2019 version of the report, released by the city in May, saw little change in the ratio comparison.
Reggie Ivey, the Health Department’s chief operating officer, said contributing factors to shortened senior life spans, like chronic isolation, increased health concerns and medical costs, continue to be challenges for those living in north Tulsa.
“There are many senior adults who are isolated. They’re not closely connected to what is going on within the community,” said Ivey.
That is why senior-oriented centers — like the one Clifton has run for years — are vital to the survival and social development of those who rely on the services provided.
“(Seniors) have to come to places like this to get meals or get information about what’s going on in the community,” Clifton said. “Without the center, a lot of them wouldn’t have something to eat.”
‘A little bit of help goes a long way’
It’s the lack of food security highlighted in the Gallup-Tulsa Citivoice Index that underscored the city’s problem with food deserts. These areas are often endemic to low-income communities where it is difficult to access fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Nearly half of black residents (46%) said finding stores or markets with fresh fruits and vegetables in the area where they live is difficult or very difficult,” according to the survey.
That reality is crystallized just by observing the stretch of Pine Street and Peoria Avenue where McDonald’s and Popeyes restaurants sit. A Taco Bell and Sonic are nearby. Currently, a Burger King is under construction and scheduled to open soon in the same lot with a QuikTrip that opened in March.
While the businesses promise jobs and a small economic surplus to the area, they fail to provide healthy dietary options for older residents with limited alternatives to begin with.
“We don’t have anything reliable,” said Clifton, who acknowledged that seniors regularly are forced to travel with family members or caretakers to south Tulsa to get fresh produce. “It does not make an impact. All it does is make it convenient for people traveling along U.S. 75 to get gas or a sandwich.”
To help fill the void, Eco Alliance Group LLC last month brought hope to the area when it unveiled renderings for a 16,425-square-foot grocery store that would be located in the 1700 block of North Peoria Avenue thanks to a $1.5 million federal grant awarded to the Tulsa Economic Development Corporation. Known as Project Oasis, the store is designed to provide access to fresh, affordable food.
District 1 City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, who described the opportunity as “huge,” said a grocery store project was something she had been working to achieve for several years.
“We were going to continue to work on (it) until we met our goal of having a quality grocery store in District 1,” Hall-Harper said.
Another obstacle that seniors are faced with is inconsistent transportation sources. Many seniors rely on family members, if they have any available, to travel to the places they need. To confront that problem, the Oklahoma Primary Care Association secured a grant that enabled it to provide transportation.
“Transportation is a big one,” said Cassidy Heit, an Oklahoma Primary Care Association spokesperson. “They need transportation to medical appointments, grocery stores, but many of them don’t have a lot of family members to help them. I would say that is one of the biggest barriers.”
Jimmy Avery, 68, has lived at the Jordan Plaza Apartments, 630 E. Oklahoma St., which primarily houses the elderly and disabled, for the past decade. He often relies on relatives to take him where he needs to go. When they’re not available, Avery says, he waits around for someone to give him a ride. As a last resort, the retired steel mill worker will walk, despite having limited mobility.
“It’s hard,” said Avery. “It’s really hard.”
The Indian Nations Council of Governments has also stepped in by developing the Creating Access to Nutrition plan though a $20,000 grant from the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center to provide service for elderly people to visit doctor’s offices and area stores. Its purpose was to implement alternate methods of transportation to help elderly residents become more food secure.
Clark Miller, INCOG Agency on Aging director, said the organization also arranged a partnership with ride-share companies that allow seniors to obtain transportation to and from their residences.
“For a lot of older people, a little bit of help goes a long way in making a difference for them,” Miller said.
‘We’re right on board’
Advocates and city leaders say they will continue to tackle social determinants that lead to varying degrees of disparity throughout Tulsa even though progress has been gradual over the years.
Krystal Reyes, the city’s new chief resilience officer, said the city — through its civic partners and its own efforts — will work to address equity numbers that are considered “still unacceptable” as they relate to economic development, social support, health care, and health care access.
One of those initiatives is the Community Health Improvement Plan developed by the Health Department. The planned undertaking attempts to address public health problems with a focus on education and access among other needs for all Tulsans, particularly for vulnerable citizens.
Another is a Community Development Block Grant used by Vintage Housing/Life Senior Services that provides housing for the elderly. Additionally, two new housing projects are in the works for Lewis Avenue and Admiral Boulevard that is expected to provide 46 units. The projects are expected to be completed within the next two years, city officials said.
“Our approach to addressing life expectancy is a multisector, multidimensional and multiyear approach to address social determinants of health,” said Reyes. “We are amplifying and supporting the work of our partners. Wherever we can highlight some sort of policy or changes, we’re right on board.”
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