A friend told her about linkAges, an online time-banking network sponsored by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, in which participants can offer a "neighborly service" — say a ride to the airport, knitting lessons or help with gardening — and later can receive a service of their choice from other time-bank members.
Ahrens joined the online exchange and soon found herself imparting Sudoku tips to a much younger member. Taking up the offer of a different time-bank member, she began playing European board games with a group of women at the Sunnyvale Senior Center.
"I've just found it kind of fascinating," Ahrens said. "Ruby (the time-bank member who originally posted the board-game offer) and I have finally gotten past the point where we meet at the Sunnyvale Senior Center, and after a couple of months she invited me to come play board games at her house.
"Now we're just a group of people who like doing the same things," she said.
Recently Ahrens, who is a cat owner, posted a new offer on the time bank: She'll take care of your cat while you're away.
"I'm kind of planning a trip for next spring, and it would be nice if I could find someone else who'd like cat-sitting," she said. "Not only is it difficult to find people, but it would be nice to pay with time instead of with dollars. So I've posted an offer to do cat-sitting."
Ahrens was among the first members of the time bank, launched by PAMF last year as part of a larger initiative to support older adults and family caregivers in the community.
The time bank emerged from research and brainstorming by officials at PAMF's David Druker Center for Health Systems Innovation, which aims to "leverage technology to create scalable solutions that address the pressing health challenges of our time."
The group focused on addressing issues raised by the aging of the population because of the huge number of people, locally and nationally, turning age 65 over the next few years, said Vandana Pant, senior director of strategic initiatives for the center. A medical ethnographer led the design process, observing and interviewing local seniors and family caregivers.
"We heard again and again from seniors that the issue becomes isolation," Pant said.
"We heard a very poignant phrase from one person in particular — 'the world starts to close in' — which we felt encapsulated the problem. They're here, but becoming invisible and no longer in a place where they're able to give back. People feel like a burden on an ongoing basis. One said, 'I'm tired of being the recipient of volunteer services because all I do is receive," contributing to that sense of lack of value."
They chose the name linkAges in hopes that the project would attract users of all ages.
The time bank creates opportunities for seniors to contribute in ways that work for them, Pant said. For example, her own 84-year-old mother offered to knit scarves. On behalf of her mother, Pant asked a 28-year-old time-bank member who recently moved to the area from India to come play Scrabble with her.
"They met around Scrabble and finished the game in 45 minutes, but they were together for two hours," Pant said. "It was an opportunity for the young woman, who had just moved here because of her husband's tech job, to start to get to know her community."
Time-bank members also may donate earned hours to a "community pool" to make services available for frail seniors who need someone to check in on them or help with errands.
In its second year of a three- to five-year pilot, the time bank has about 260 members, aged 18 to 92, who have completed more than 600 hours of exchanges. About 40 percent of members are older than 65.
Now the push is on to attract more members to the free network.
A recent orientation meeting for prospective time bankers at the Red Rock café in Mountain View drew about 15, including some young time-bank staff members. Several newcomers said they'd recently retired and were looking for new ways to meet people.
"When you retire, you have a group of friends that are still working and you need to find a bunch of people who now have the day open," Ahrens said.
When she signed on last year, the time bank was just getting started and had few members.
"You really do need a critical mass of people in order to find the cross-section of what people offer to do and what people want to request, and I think they're just getting to that point," she said.
Though prospective members are subject to background checks, guidelines advise time bankers to exercise the same caution they would use when interacting with a new friend or neighbor for the first time.
"No one has access to your phone number or address unless you give it to them," said Christina Araiza, community engagement manager for the PAMF center for health systems innovation. "The only geographic indicator is your city."
The linkAges TimeBank also schedules monthly activities for members, which recently included a free tai chi session for beginners at Rinconada Park that attracted several dozen participants.
"We want our members to get to know each other and to feel comfortable calling on each other if they need help and support," Araiza said.
The PAMF team also has made its time-bank software available to other groups, including the El Camino YMCA in Mountain View and Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.
In late September, Beth Am launched "LinkAges Beth Am," a private time bank limited to congregation members.
"We're a big congregation and people don't necessarily know each other," Beth Am board member Stephanie Hannaford said. "There are so many really talented people but nobody knows what their talents are, who's got some free time, who doesn't — everybody's so busy. This is a really nice way for people to get introduced to each other, and they have something in common from the get-go.
"We just started and we're not really booming yet, but I think over time we may be able to help our elders more and also utilize the talents of our teenagers and the in-between people, so that's my dream."
The PAMF linkAges TimeBank will hold an orientation session for prospective members on Thursday, Nov. 13, from 6 to 7 p.m. at Hobee's, 4224 El Camino Real in Palo Alto. To register for the session visit timebank.linkages.org/component/dtregister.
More information about the program is available at timebank/linkages.org and 650-934-3556.