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Sometimes It Takes A 'Village' To Help Seniors Stay In Their Homes


They wanted to stay in their homes as long as possible ... has about 19,000 people spread across an area bigger than the state of Delaware. It's in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northeastern California. There's no interstate highway, not a lot of chain ...


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Debra Thompson is throwing a block partyShe has good weather for it — never a sure thing in Chicago — a warm and sunny autumn afternoonMusic is playing, hot dogs are grillingBut this party isn't just for funThompson is the volunteer chairwoman of Englewood Village, an organization that connects low-income older adults on the city's South Side with services from nutrition to job assistance to home repairAnd this is how she is reaching out to potential new members"We have flyers, we're going to knock on doors, spreading the word, getting everybody involved," says Thompson with her usual boundless enthusiasmThe Englewood Village has been around since 2015But its roots go back 17 years and all the way to Boston, where Susan McWhinney-Morse and her friends were grappling with anxieties about agingThey wanted to stay in their homes as long as possibleThey wanted to remain in their community on Beacon HillAfter a couple of years of effort, they produced the concept now known as the villageIt's a membership-run organization that provides access to services like transportation, help with household chores, even trouble-shooting computer problems, along with classes and social activitiesThe idea of being able to maintain independence into one's 80s or 90s is so irresistible that over the past decade, the number of villages across the country has grown from just that one in Boston to 230Another 130 are in developmentAn independent organization has been founded to support the expansion of villagesIt's called the Village to Village Network, which has a map on its website showing where villages are locatedSo far, the overwhelming majority of village members are middle class or wealthier, according to research from The Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services at the University of California, BerkeleyThat may have something to do with membership dues amounting to several hundred dollars a yearBut now the idea is being adapted to serve more varied communities, where dues are not an issueOur reporting was inspired by NPR listenersEarlier this year, we asked them to share their stories of how older adults without family caregivers manage when they need helpMany respondents mentioned the villages in their own communitiesSo this fall, we traveled around the country to take a look at how villages are evolvingWe found an effort in Chicago to create villages that serve low-income communities of colorWe found a village in rural California where older adults don't just receive services, they also provide themUltimately, what we found was that in practice, the village model isn't so much a fixed formula, as an expression of older adults' desires to age with dignity and independenceOr as Susan McWhinney-Morse put it, "a grass-roots movement on the part of older people who did not want to be patronized, isolated, [or] infantilized." Changing expectations McWhinney-Morse says that back in 2000 in Beacon Hill, continuing to live independently wasn't expected after age 65"That was the line when one became suddenly old," she says"I knew from everything I read that it was the time when I should move: Move south, move flat, move warm, move safe, but certainly not stay in my house on Beacon Hill." But who wouldn't want to stay in Beacon Hill, with its colonial-style architecture, cobblestone sidewalks and charming little shops? So McWhinney-Morse and about a dozen friends tried to find a way to get the support they needed as they aged without having to give up their homes and their communityThe result of two years of effort was Beacon Hill VillageMembers pay dues of a few hundred dollars a yearIn exchange, they have access to a wide array of discounted services — from home health to home repair to transportationThere's also a busy calendar of classes, trips and social eventsThere was nothing else around like Beacon Hill Village for several yearsThen around 2006, it started to get a little bit of media attentionA little bit was all it tookMcWhinney-Morse says that in one single week, "we literally — this is not an exaggeration — received 1,000 telephone calls or emails from across the country from people saying, 'How do I start a village, is there a village in my neighborhood, what do I do, who can I call, may I come and see you?' " Beacon Hill Village is no longer novelIt has been around for 15 years and has more than 300 membersAnd every Wednesday morning for nearly a decade, at least a dozen of them have met to discuss politics over French toast and oatmealObservations about climate change, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and President Trump's latest tweet rise above the clink of cutlery and coffee cups"It's made me much more alert," says 80-year-old Muriel Feingold"I have to keep up with stuff because [I know] I'm meeting people on WednesdaySo I think I've been more attuned to what's going on politically and internationally." Beacon Hill Village is also providing the kind of help with daily activities that was part of the original visionLike rides to the supermarketTom Moore, 67, drives several days a week for Beacon Hill Village membersHe used to be in the travel businessThis is his retirement jobHe doesn't do it just for the money"I enjoy it," he says"I meet a great group of people." One of them is 83-year-old Joan SmithShe emerges from her apartment building slowly, using a cane"I have a problem with balance if I go too fast," she says"I didn't want to use it," she says of her cane, but the Beacon Hill cobblestones can trip her up and the cane does seem to helpSo the ride to the supermarket is essential for herIt's also funSmith enjoys getting her own groceries, checking the specials, seeing what's newBut that's now beyond what 77-year-old Cynthia Beaudoin can doMoore picks up her groceries from a list and delivers them to her apartmentA home health aide greets him at the doorBeaudoin remains on the couch, her walker nearby and an emergency call button hanging around her neckHer life has been like this since she was in the hospital a few years agoWhen she was discharged, she didn't want to go to a rehab hospital"I just wanted to come home directly," recalls BeaudoinBeacon Hill Village was able to connect her with the right services to make it possible for her to return to the apartment she has lived in for 36 yearsIt has a view of the Charles River that no one would want to leaveBut for Beaudoin, Beacon Hill Village is more than the sum of its services"It's comforting," she says"That's one of the most important things." A village for everyone At her Chicago block party, Debra Thompson cannot be ignored, with her dyed blond hair and a bright yellow T-shirtShe calls out to everyone, hoping they'll fill out her survey so she can find out what they needAnd Englewood seniors have a lot of needsNearly half of the people in this African-American neighborhood live below the poverty lineBut many of them have no idea that there are public services that might help themThompson wants to change thatAnd she persists even when some people are reluctant to put their names on anythingA woman named Bessie Stovall says, "My children say don't sign nothing unless I know what I'm signing." Thompson reassures her"This is not a contract." She explains that Englewood Village can connect her with services to help find a job, for instance, or a place to stay"Oh yeah, I need a job," says StovallSuddenly, she is happy to fill out the form, and Thompson directs her to an upcoming job fair that focuses on employment for seniorsThompson also passes out information on a lottery for free roof repairs and discounts on utilities and tells people about a service that can help frail older people remain in their homesFrances Shedd, 80, knows all about that oneYears ago, she worked for a government service that provides homemaker assistance to older adults up to 12 hours a weekNow she watches the party from her porch, accompanied by her own homemaker, Quintechette Jones"I keep everything clean in her atmosphere," says Jones"I make sure she gets her nutritionI groom her sometimesAnd then we sit and chat." Shedd thinks it's great that the Englewood Village is telling more people about this service"When you get to a certain age," she explains, "you need somebody to see after you because we don't feel good when we get up in the morning." Another observer of the block party is Joyce Gallagher, and she likes what she seesShe is Chicago's deputy commissioner for senior servicesGallagher loved the village concept from the first time she heard about it and wanted every older adult to have access to such a supportive communityThe hang-up was the duesThe Chicagoans who could benefit the most from a village couldn't fork over a few hundred bucks a year on top of paying for servicesThen Gallagher had her lightbulb momentWhat were the dues for? They paid for office space and computers and phonesBut her department already had all of that in its 21 senior centersThe city could donate the office space and equipmentBut she didn't want this to be a city-driven programShe envisioned the villages being grass-roots organizations run by volunteersAs for services, those would come from government programs available to low-income seniorsSo Gallagher began to call meetings at senior centers around the city to see whether anyone was even interested in becoming part of thisShe had no expectations about how she would be received"You have someone coming from the outside, and saying 'Listen, we've got no proof that this is going to work, but we really feel that you deserve this, that every community deserves this ..are you interested?' " In Englewood, Debra Thompson was interestedIn fact, the Village has become her cause"I devote every day to my seniors," she says"I'm always looking for ways and partnerships and issues that can assist us to assist them in achieving what they need." Thompson's early enthusiasm is the reason that Englewood is the oldest village in the Chicago systemCurrently, there are just six citywideEach one operates out of a different senior centerGallagher wants to have villages reaching out to all 21 neighborhoods where senior centers are located by the end of next yearA big dependence on government services could make the project vulnerable to the whims of state and federal budget-makersBut Gallagher says that is not the only focus: Volunteers in each village set their own agendasOne is centered on gentrification, another on preventing financial scams targeting seniors, while a third concentrates on dealing with emotional trauma caused by that neighborhood's many shootingsPeople continued to stop by Thompson's block party even after the hot dogs were goneOver the course of the afternoon, she signed up close to 50 people who hadn't known about Englewood VillageFor Thompson, that was one sign that the afternoon had been a successAnother sign? Some people invited her to throw block parties on their streets, making Thompson hopeful that Englewood Village will continue to growReaching seniors out of reach Plumas County, Calif., has about 19,000 people spread across an area bigger than the state of DelawareIt's in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northeastern CaliforniaThere's no interstate highway, not a lot of chain stores, hardly any stoplights, but lots of pine trees"When you live out here, you have to be ready for the winter," says 75-year-old Jimmie OnealAnd preparing for the snow and cold is what Oneal is doing on this late autumn afternoonShe directs a handful of volunteers who've come to ferry stacks of firewood from a garden shed up to her back porchThat firewood will help Oneal heat her home when the cold is so severe that her propane heater just isn't enoughBoth Oneal and the volunteers helping her are members of Community Connections, Plumas County's version of a villageIt works on what is known as a time bank modelMembers get credits in their time bank accounts for helping one anotherThen when they need some help themselves, they draw on those credits to "pay" for the serviceAnd in Plumas County, those services run the gamut from helping to clear trees to serving food at a wedding to teaching welding and other building skillsOneal lives alone in a little dome house on a heavily wooded acre of land that slopes down to a creekSince her husband died eight years ago, help from Community Connections volunteers has been crucial to her ability to remain hereShe has still had to make some changes though: She gave up her chickens"I was having to carry buckets of water [for the chickens] down that hill in the wintertime and it gets really icy," she says"I finally decided that one bad fall could be real bad news for meSo I decided to find homes for my chickensAnd I still miss 'em." If Oneal had a bad fall, her options in Plumas County would be limitedThere's only one assisted living facilityIt can accept just four residentsThere are no vacanciesThe beds are also full at the two small nursing homesSo around here, helping seniors live independently isn't just matter of what they want, it's almost the only optionAnd Oneal says she has her own way of contributing to the time bank for the help she receives from Community Connections"I guess you could say I'm sort of like a grannyPeople come to me with all kinds of questions: about gardening, about chickens, about trees, about how to survive with the cold, especially people who haven't been here that long," she saysCommunity Connections is run by Plumas Rural Services, a large nonprofit social services agencyDues are just $10 a yearAnyone can joinThe youngest member is 7 years old, the eldest is 93Leslie Wall has run Community Connections since it began 10 years agoBack then, she wanted to find out what older people wanted from the program"We expected seniors would want transportation," she recalls, "and they would want visitors, and someone to call them weeklyAnd what we found was the greatest need of our seniors was to be neededWe have seniors who want things to do that are vital, that matter, that make a difference." Pat Evans' skills as a seamstress make a difference to Karon ChanceEvans, 77, does almost all of the Chance family's mending, which leaves Karon Chance more time to build her catering businessNow, Chance believes she has brought Evans a real puzzleThe backing of a cherished old quilt is shreddingIt needs to be removed and replacedBut for Evans, it's no problemAs the two women pore over the quilt, Evans explains what kind of replacement fabric will be needed and a couple of different stitching techniques she could useThere's nothing like experienceEvans has been sewing since she was 10 years old: made her own clothes, her wedding dress, her late husband's sport coats, her kids' clothesNow she lives alone and sews for her fellow members of Community ConnectionsKaron Chance says that has benefited both of them in ways they hadn't planned"Sometimes we just catch up and talk about the dog and about the flowers," she says"Pat and I might never have crossed paths if it weren't for Community ConnectionsAnd now I've made a friend." That is an unexpected dividend of credits in the time bank.

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