Supporting seniors in their own homes – Baltimore Sun

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A growing elderly population is turning to a network of caregivers and volunteers to retain independence
By Tanika White | Sun reporter
March 24, 2008

Joyce Paige is 72 and, by her own admission, getting a little frail. She’d like nothing more than to continue living in her Glen Burnie home, but without outside help, it could become more difficult the older she gets.

Paige could get that opportunity now that a group in Anne Arundel County is establishing a “virtual village” – a loose network of caregivers, volunteers and service providers – to assist Anne Arundel residents older than 55 who might one day need care. A Baltimore woman is also looking at establishing such a village in the city’s Roland Park neighborhood.

The concept of virtual villages began six years ago in Beacon Hill, an established, affluent neighborhood in Boston. The idea is simple: For a yearly membership fee, older residents in a self-defined geographical region who are in need of rides, home maintenance, social activities, neighborly visits and so on, can count on a community of volunteers and village-vetted service providers to assist them.

Virtual villages are a product of the aging-in-place movement, a larger national effort among those who work with the growing elderly population. People over the age of 65 now represent about 13 percent of the population, experts said, but will make up 25 percent by 2040.

Proponents of aging-in-place say most seniors would prefer to stay in their homes as long as possible and that living at home is better for them as well as for the community.

“The villages are really a response to people in their 60s, 70s and 80s wanting to have control over where and how they are going to live in the years ahead,” said Andrea Cohen, CEO of HouseWorks, a private home care company that provides services to help seniors stay in their homes – and contracts with the Beacon Hill Village. “Also, the aging baby boomers are really saying to themselves, ‘I want a sense of community.’ For so much of our lives, you hardly know your neighbors; you’re busy working. So you haven’t built a community as much. So you’re figuring out a way to create community now.”

Since Beacon Hill opened its virtual “doors,” four others have opened in Cambridge, Mass.; Palo Alto, Calif; Washington, D.C.; and New Canaan, Conn. And dozens are in the works, said Judy Willett, executive director of the Beacon Hill Village.

Locally, Partners in Care, a Severna Park-based nonprofit that helps older and disabled adults remain independent in their homes, plans to launch a prototype village in June. And Susan Newhouse, owner of Senior Solutions, a geriatric care management company in Roland Park, is looking for investors and helpers to get a virtual village up and running in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood.

“While I love doing [personalized geriatric care management], there are certain things I can’t do for my clients,” Newhouse said. “I can’t find them community – which is what people need.”

Newhouse is in the beginning stages of brainstorming and planning the Roland Park village.

At Partners in Care, the process is further along.

Vendors have been contacted and a planning document is in place with a breakdown of how many employees the village will need (four, half time), how many seniors will need to sign up (150 to 300) to get it off the ground, and exactly what services the village will initially provide.

Maureen Cavaiola, co-founder of Partners in Care and village co-director, said one of the most important village services will be transportation – something the nonprofit already provides to many county seniors.

Maggy Cullman, 71, of Severna Park joined Partners in Care two years ago to be one of the group’s designated volunteer “chauffeurs.”

Cullman had at one time considered moving to San Francisco to be near one of her two daughters so that – in her frailer years – she’d have someone close by to tend to her. But the thought of leaving her longtime home and friends in Maryland made her depressed, she said.

Now Cullman is on that village’s advisory board, helping to plan the June launch.

“I call it enlightened self-interest,” Cullman said. “I want to see it done right … so it will be there for me.”

Paige now calls Partners in Care when she needs a ride to doctor visits or other appointments. The couple who often takes Paige to and fro – Nancy and Bill Kayser – are themselves seniors (she’s 68; he’s 75), who want to use their retirement to serve others.

In addition, Nancy Kayser said, “I’m sure the time is going to come when we’re going to need help, also.”

Partners in Care officials call the relationship between the Kaysers and Paige “intentional reciprocity;” Newhouse calls it “care exchange.” Both say such practices will be hallmarks of the villages they hope to create.

In both the Roland Park and Anne Arundel County models, volunteers will donate their time to others; those same people will receive assistance or kindness when they need it most.

“There’s a clear need to fill in the gaps in the social safety net that exists right now,” said Peter Engstrom, the Anne Arundel County village’s other co-director. “While individual services are provided by a whole host of well-meaning organizations, there are still gaps.”

Seniors who live alone or are frail can see their doctors for most of their health care needs, he said, but what happens if they have a cold and simply need someone to run to the drugstore? They can thumb through the phone book looking for gutter cleaners; but who’s to say their uninformed selection will be the best one? And what are many seniors to do for fun or companionship?

“Say a senior center has an exercise class, and if somebody doesn’t show up for class now, nobody calls them and says, ‘Are you OK?’ Whereas in a village you could call and say, ‘We were concerned about you. Is everything OK? Oh, you have the flu – would you like to have someone come in and check on you?'” Newhouse said. “People feel very alone when they’re out there. It’s a way of connecting at a different level, with a community base, sharing everybody’s talents and everybody’s strengths.”

For that reason, said Darryl Hicks, associate director of the National Aging in Place Council, the village concept is a good one.

“I think it’s a very clever, effective way to help meet the needs of individuals who want to remain in their homes throughout retirement,” Hicks said. “What it does is it brings those services to the neighborhoods directly. It’s being emulated throughout the country. For a lot of people who may be living alone, it helps create a greater sense of community.”

Another bonus of the senior care network is that service providers would be pre-screened by village organizers and potentially would work at discounted rates for members.

Knowing what she does about what Partners in Care already provides, Paige is looking forward to seeing what the virtual village will add to her life.

“From changing light bulbs to raking the yard; if your sink gets clogged up, they’ll come. They come fix your commode,” Paige said. “All those things that you cannot do on $200 a week Social Security, [which is] what I get. You can’t do all that and stay in your home. And my home is all I have.”

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