An experiment in aging gracefully, in place | November 2, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 2, 2012

An experiment in aging gracefully, in place

Local 'village' of seniors helping seniors marks five years

by Chris Kenrick

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


Posted by Michelle Rogers, a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm

The Village concept is enabling people to age in place gracefully all the while having access to partners in the community that can support their needs. Congratulations to Avendias Village for the great work they are doing.

Posted by Ducatigirl, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm

This is a wonderful blend of the best of both worlds--independence and assisted living.
I hope it is still around when I need it.

Posted by Tracey Chen, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 5, 2012 at 10:51 am

I'll be 50 this week, but I need this group! I can't turn a mattress either! I am disabled by nerve problems....but there's plenty of stuff I CAN the commenter above, I want to know how to join...sign me up....And everyone, for the first time, you can really make a difference this year. You can vote for Jill Stein (or Gary Johnson, but Stein is my choice), and third party for every seat that you can. You don't have to believe the old programming that it's a wasted vote. It isn't. The only wasted vote is a vote for anyone who supports the NDAA or citizens united.....that means you can't vote for Obama or Romney or ANY incumbent....wake up, please. If you don't even KNOW who is in the third party debate tonight, you're not an educated voter.....please stop dragging our nation to war.

Posted by registered user, Tyler Hanley, a resident of digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Nov 5, 2012 at 10:52 am

The following comment was moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by RussianMom, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 3, 2012, at 9:41 p.m.

Great story.

Where can younger people get involved? We have talented and compasionate youth here. How about holidays concerts? Post some opportunities for them

Posted by Dodiben, a resident of another community
on Jan 26, 2016 at 3:08 pm

I live in Saratoga but would love to join Avenidas village. It would be nice to recruit some volunteers in this area (or even Mountain View) who could give occasional help with small things like (as mentioned in one of the notes) turning a mattress. I live alone and at 85 can pretty much fend for myself. I wish that I could latch onto this group as my own. Its a wonderful concept.

Posted by Voice in the Wilderness, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 26, 2016 at 7:22 pm

Re Avenidas Village, It is a great concept, but its costs. $900 annually for one person, $1200 for two. The philosophy is that we should join before we need it, the same concept as insurance. Protection. It offers a number of programs like fast help for emergencies, vetting of vendors (which the main Avenidas offers anyway) as well as the opportunity for some nice friendship & socialization activities that are so important during the aging process.

However, not all Palo Altans can put out that kind of money for the Village.

I called the Village's director one morning, saying that I had a senior friend who could not afford the $900. Could she tell me about some type of "scholarship" or funding to help that type of person. She thought for a moment and then said, "Well, Palo Altans are rich." Gulp. Wow. I replied quite sharply, "Well they all aren't." She then replied, "Oh, yes some are house rich and cash poor." (Oh, nice of you to recognize that.) She further added that any assistance would probably be given to someone already a Village member. And, she stressed that there was really no money, but she could look around and perhaps find some. But, it was a very much "we really don't have it."

Avenidas should look past those who CAN afford the Village and think of a people in the City within a broader context of programs. Granted, there are the good programs that Avenidas does offer, and those do fill an important need.

But I urge us all to remember that lovely gentleman who recently put a comment on PaloAltoOnline regarding the shuttle survey missing many seniors. He said that he needed to buy clothes beyond what he could get at CVS. How many of you buy your clothes there at CVS? He wanted the shuttle to take him to Kohls, Walmart, etc. in northern Mountain View because the Stanford Shopping Center was too expensive. (Really!)

The City turns a blind eye to people like this man. As for me, I have enough activities on my plat as a "senior senior" without the need to join Avenidas Village. Some day perhaps, but not now.