An experiment in aging gracefully, in place
Local 'village' of seniors helping seniors marks five years
It's one thing to say you intend to age gracefully in your own home and avoid institutionalized care — and something else entirely to accomplish it.
Several hundred Palo Alto area residents this month marked five years of testing the concept through membership in Avenidas Village, a program that's created a community of mutual support for people as they age.
For an annual fee of $875 — $1,250 for a couple — members enjoy a social network of fellow seniors, some volunteer services, a 24/7 phone number to call for help and access to a list of nearly 200 vetted local service providers in everything from home maintenance to financial services to transportation.
With a blend of volunteer and paid services, the venture is part social, part practical — and very much a work in progress.
The village's nearly 400-strong membership is broken down into neighborhood "clusters" of about 25 people to foster connectedness and social ties.
If a member needs help turning a mattress, fellow members may volunteer to help. If it's a bigger job, say major landscaping or gutter-cleaning, there's a vetted list of vendors, who may offer discounts.
Transportation, a major issue for many seniors, is handled through paid providers or, sometimes, volunteers.
Two full-time and two part-time staff members coordinate all the moving parts.
Avenidas Village was purely theoretical when interested people gathered in a Palo Alto living room seven years ago in hopes of getting something started. They'd read in the Wall Street Journal about Beacon Hill Village — a Boston venture in mutual aging support launched in 2002 — and wondered whether the model could be replicated on the West Coast.
The founding group of Palo Alto residents formed an alliance with the existing nonprofit senior agency Avenidas, which offered office space and overhead support.
With its launch in 2007, Avenidas Village became the sixth in what is now a movement of nearly 100 senior "villages" across the United States.
"I'd be talking a lot with my neighbors about how we were getting old and what we were going to do," said Palo Alto resident and retired lawyer Mary Minkus, a member of the village from its earliest days.
"We didn't want to have to move."
For Minkus, the village functions both as a social network and an outlet for her considerable volunteer energy. She's part of a group of three volunteers who make five-day-a week check-in calls to fellow members who live alone and have requested them.
"I'll also call on a weekend if I think somebody's in a bad spot because weekends can sometimes be the most lonely time," she said.
"I like the volunteering aspect because we need to know that we're still needed. My particular belief is that everybody in this organization who's a member will get more out of it if they also volunteer."
Of the village's 370 current members, about 60 volunteer with the organization, program director Vickie Epstein said. Members range in age from their 50s to their 90s, with the highest concentration ages 70 to 85, she said. Most live in Palo Alto, Stanford and Menlo Park, with some others in Los Altos, Atherton and Mountain View.
For founding member Bob Gee of Atherton, the main use for Avenidas Village so far has been as a social network.
Gee said the Menlo Park cluster gathers about once a month in someone's home or in a restaurant, with about 20 typically showing up. In an online network, they sometimes trade things like extra tickets to the Giants or the opera.
For villagers who are well enough not to need the services, paying for membership is something of a paradox.
"Many join looking at it as an insurance policy," Epstein said.
"They're doing great; they don't really need the services at the time they join, but they want to know that when they do need it — if they need it — all the support services are going to be available to them."
But when it comes time to renew, it can be hard for them to see that they're getting value. Nonetheless, Epstein cites a 90 percent membership retention rate.
Despite a determination to remain at home, catastrophic health issues or cognitive impairment have forced some members to move to care facilities. Epstein views help with such moves as being among the village's array of services.
"This has happened to a few of our members, and helping them and their family members with their decision about a greater level of care is one of our services," she said.
The village has forged relationships with local hospitals so it can help to coordinate services needed when a member is discharged.
"My wife and I are both in physically good condition," founding member Bruce Heister said.
"But we have a daughter who works in Manhattan, and we don't want her to have to come running back for things like that."
Heister volunteers as a driver and handyman for fellow villagers. Recently, he helped a widow who had sold the family vacation home in Hawaii re-hang some of the vacation home pictures in her house here.
"One of the great pleasures I get out of driving people, or doing odd jobs in their homes, is that everybody's got a story," Heister said.
"They've had interesting jobs in their lifetimes, interesting travels, and you get into good discussions with them."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.