Ralston Center marks 200 years of caring for elderly in the city

This month 200 years ago, one woman set out to solve a problem vexing Philadelphia then as now: how to compassionately care for the city's aged population. The result, today's Ralston Center, was the first charitable organization exclusively dedicated to Philadelphia's elderly.

In an era predating Medicare and other national social insurances, those facing the vagaries of old age had few places to turn. For the poor and sick, it was often the almshouse or the asylum that awaited.

Sarah Clarkson Ralston - daughter of Matthew Clarkson, a supporter of the Revolution and early Philadelphia mayor - set out to change this. Beginning in 1817 from small quarters on Market Street, the then-Indigent Widows and Single Women's Society pledged to secure "the relief of aged and indigent women."

Like the majority of nonprofits today, Ralston relied upon the generosity of private individuals. Leveraging connections afforded by her privileged pedigree, she raised $10,000 - more than $150,000 in today's money - to launch her initiative.

But the support of everyday citizens is also reflected in Ralston's records, as the organization subsisted on donations for even basic supplies. Meeting minutes document gifts ranging from a "keg of herring, a pound and a half of thread," to "two ounces laudanum" and "six chairs and a tea table."

The organization grew from 30 tenants in 1817 to more than 100 upon the completion of its Wilson Brothers-designed building on Chestnut Street between 36th and 37th Streets.

With an emphasis on quality-of-life care, however, Ralston struggled to meet the city's needs as the sole provider of elderly support. Unable to treat those with dementia and Alzheimer's, or those requiring daily medical care, she refused many of the city's aged women as tenants.

Fortunately for those suffering from such afflictions, Ralston's success led to the creation of more than 60 care homes in the city by the turn of the 20th century.

Following its merger with the Tilden Home for Aged Couples, Ralston began addressing the needs of both men and women, and shifted from a residential care facility to a community health center. On the eve of its bicentennial, however, addressing the vital needs of Philadelphia's elderly citizens remains as fundamental to Ralston's mission as it did two centuries ago.

The 63 boxes of Ralston's archival materials represent perhaps the most comprehensive record of a benevolent institution founded in the United States' early years, and is available for research at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

To learn more about Ralston's 200th anniversary, visit ralstoncenter.org.