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It Takes a Village

Author: Amara Rose
June, 2012 Issue


Age proofing means modifying your surroundings for the greatest degree of livability for all ages.

 
The boomer generation is reimagining every aspect of aging: Someone turns 60 every 10 seconds. And while they have no intention of going gentle into that good night, they don’t need to go it alone.

The expression, “It takes a village,” usually applied to raising children, is equally apt at the other end of the life spectrum, when mature adults may need assistance in various aspects of their lives to maintain their independence with integrity.

A virtual village of vital support

When Anne Greenblatt of Petaluma retired two years ago from her position as career counselor at Sonoma State University, she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren. She also wanted to stay active in the community. Earlier in her career, she’d been director of Retired Executive Volunteers in Palo Alto, and thought about exploring a similar path. Then she saw an ad for the upcoming national conference of the Village to Village (VtV) Network happening in Oakland and decided to attend. Over the course of three days, “Village” members from around the country enthusiastically discussed how to build sustainable support systems to help older adults live active, vibrant, independent lives in their own homes as they grow older.

“I caught fire!” Greenblatt says now. “I called my husband the first night of the conference and said, ‘Our phone is going to be ringing a lot!’ I knew this was something that fit my passion, interests and skill set.” Since last October, Greenblatt has been facilitating the development of a village in Petaluma.

Villages are not physical structures, but rather virtual, member-driven, grassroots organizations that coordinate access to affordable services and offer vetted (and often discounted) providers, complementing other community services. Currently there are 65 villages operating in the United States, with 29 in California alone, and many more in development.

“Aging baby boomers are redefining aging as a positive developmental stage—it’s a sea change in attitude,” says Greenblatt, who turned 69 in February. “The VtV model offers a collage of support that empowers older adults, gives them more control and supports them so they can contribute their wisdom, skills and knowledge to the larger community.”

In a community workshop to explore the Village model in Petaluma, a preliminary needs assessment indicated the biggest gaps in service lie in transportation, affordable housing, centralized information and referral, and fraud prevention. Through its four main constituencies—members, volunteers, preferred providers and nonprofit partners—VtV aims to function “like a hub: one call, one solution,” says Greenblatt. And the village model doesn’t need to be income-restrictive: The annual membership dues offer a special rate for low-income members.

The more a village grows, the broader the scope of services it's able to provide. Greenblatt cites the safety net Berkeley’s Ashby Village became for one couple in profound transition, who joined intending to volunteer. One month later, the wife was critically injured in a hit-and-run. When her husband turned to Ashby Village for assistance in addressing the myriad issues involved in her care, several volunteers, including a geriatric social worker, rushed to his aid.

Tragically, his wife died from her injuries, but Ashby Village continued to serve as the grieving husband’s lifeline, providing food and emotional support, help planning her memorial and providing subsequent assistance in selling their house and relocating to a smaller, more manageable home. His gratitude is clear in this quote from the Ashby Village website: “I’m incredibly grateful for the help and support Ashby Village provided me in my time of need. I continue to look for ways I can give back by supporting others facing the challenges—and also the joys—of growing older.”

Coming home: caregivers make the difference

For many boomers, a family crisis catalyzes the desire to create a resource that will avert such circumstances for others.

Susan Lindstrom, founder of GuardianCaregivers.net, an online registry of independent professional care providers serving Sonoma County (with plans to expand), was a young working mother when her own mom had a massive stroke at age 65, while visiting from Colorado. With her mother in the hospital, Lindstrom wasn’t sure what to do next. “I didn’t even know what a caregiver was for the first several years she was ill,” she says.

Her mom’s hospital stay and skilled therapy kept her in California for four months. When she returned home, Lindstrom’s father assumed her full care. But he had his own health issues—and no experience being a caregiver.

Shortly after getting resettled in Colorado, her mother fell, broke her hip and found herself back in a skilled nursing facility. “The health of both my parents declined because neither was receiving the support they needed,” Lindstrom says.

The couple relocated to Oklahoma to be closer to relatives who could help oversee their care, and Lindstrom placed an ad in the local Oklahoma paper for a “home assistant,” hoping someone would call. “I was desperate. My dad’s diabetes became severe, and he died in 2005. His last words to me were, ‘I just want to know that someone’s there to take care of Eva.’ I promised him I would.”

Lindstrom flew her mother back to California, transferring her into a Santa Rosa nursing home. She was developing dementia, but was still lucid enough to know what was happening—and it was heartbreaking. Says Lindstrom, “As soon as she saw the nursing home, she asked, ‘So this is what you had planned?’”

Determined to bring her mother home, Lindstrom and her husband sold their Santa Rosa house and moved to one that was wheelchair accessible. Lindstrom hired a “star caregiver team”: a husband and wife who cared for her mother with skill, compassion and love.

“Mom became happier, she began singing, her memory improved with stimulation and she thrived under the personal attention ,” Lindstrom says. After her mother’s peaceful passage in 2010, “I knew I wanted to do this for others. I felt people needed support in finding affordable, independent care. It would have benefited me so much to have profiles of experienced caregivers, as well as all the how-to’s, in order to make the best decisions.”

GuardianCaregivers.net, which launched this spring, offers care seekers a range of services, from companionship, transportation, safety control and household assistance to respite care, mobility transfers, bedside assistance and hospice. The site provides a detailed guide to hiring caregivers, and a platform for caregivers to showcase their skills and credentials for those seeking home care support.

Lindstrom sees aging in place as a many-layered process that includes planning, from estate planning to retirement planning to deciding on long-term care options. “Complete an advance directive [also called a living will], and have a picture of how you want your end-of-life process to be,” she advises. It also includes knowing the resources available in your community, and being willing to use them; choosing the right doctor, ideally one with geriatric expertise; staying active in your community through clubs or groups with similar interests; exercise; and keeping your children in the loop about your health status and financial outlook.

As baby boomers, “We’re all facing these issues now,” says Lindstrom. “Adult children can often learn well ahead of time whether their parents might require care. Watch for signs of changes in functionality [such as someone falling more than once], memory issues that become more pronounced, if their house seems to be unusually messy for them, erratic driving, changes in hygiene and so forth. They might just require short-term help, such as while recovering from a broken bone, or simple ongoing assistance to remain independent, such as help with shopping and meal preparation.

“It’s crucial to educate yourself. Know what resources are out there so when the time comes, you can make informed decisions rather than feeling your way in the dark like I did.”

Rotary extends a helping hand

Like Lindstrom, Paula and Wulff Reinhold know what it means to unexpectedly find oneself in a caregiving role. Eleven years ago, Wulff’s mother moved into their Sonoma Mountain granny unit as a spry 78-year-old; as she became wheelchair-bound and developed dementia, the couple and their two sons were able to coordinate caring for her. But “not everyone is fortunate enough to have a cottage next door for mom or dad to live in,” Paula says.

She and Wulff are active members of their local Rotary, and she says, “I knew we [Rotary] had to do more. We do a lot for our youth, but we haven’t been focusing on our seniors—and we need to.”

Last fall, the Rotary club’s “Helping Hands” Senior In-Home Assistance Program was born in Rohnert Park-Cotati. On the third Saturday of every month, a team of Rotarians will come to a senior’s home and cheerfully change light bulbs, oil squeaky doors, open stuck drawers, tighten loose knobs, check and change smoke detector and/or carbon monoxide detector batteries, fix leaky faucets, as well as many other minor home repairs that don’t require a contractor. The cost? Absolutely free. A senior need only sign up via the Rohnert Park Senior Center or through the Rotary club.

While the Helping Hands crew is sprucing up your environment, another volunteer will “provide a little fellowship,” she says.

Wulff adds, “Our Rotary district is made up of 46 clubs in the counties of Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. It was Paula’s tenacity and enthusiasm, along with the full backing and support of the Rotary Club of Rohnert Park-Cotati that has refined and expanded the program. Our proven structure and delivery model has been adopted and endorsed by district leadership with the goal of having Rotary clubs throughout the district provide this service.”

As of this writing, Windsor Rotary has voted to inaugurate Helping Hands and completed its first project day in April. The Rotary Clubs of Petaluma Valley and Petaluma Sunrise have partnered in a similar program they call Home Team, and the Valley of the Moon Rotary Club has a scaled-back version where members help seniors install and change batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Good ideas spread. Thanks to the Rotary Club of Rohnert Park-Cotati Facebook page, a Rotary Club in Australia learned of Helping Hands and requested information to implement its own program.

It’s gratifying to know a simple service such as Helping Hands can help elders remain in their own homes, says Paula: “A woman with a broken neck needed a lot of work done both inside and outside her house. We had 13 volunteers there for three hours one Saturday. We cleaned up her whole backyard, then tackled the inside of the house. She was so grateful! Over the holidays, we sang Christmas carols and brought her presents.”

Age proofing a home

While it’s true elders tend to live longer and healthier lives when they’re able to age in place, it’s axiomatic that no one wants to admit they’re less agile than they once were.

Yet no matter how well connected an older adult may be in terms of services and support, their home is only viable if it “ages” well with its inhabitants. Though some seniors chafe at the idea that their independence is being compromised, “age proofing” simply means modifying a home for the greatest degree of livability—just as new parents take every precaution to “baby proof” a home to avoid a potential emergency.

In the case of elders, home modification might mean installing grab bars and non-skid tile in the bathroom to help prevent falls, adding handrails or widening doorways, or installing a removable wheelchair ramp or lower thresholds. All of these features are part of what’s known as universal design, the concept of designing buildings, products and environments to be both aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of age or ability.

Paul and Rhonda Harlin of Santa Rosa-based Jonathan’s Son provide personalized solutions to accessibility, mobility and aging in place needs. Paul is a certified aging in place specialist (CAPS) through the National Association of Home Builders, with more than 30 years’ experience as a contractor; Rhonda is a registered nurse with extensive home care expertise. The name of their business, a Biblical reference, reflects the company’s values of honor and respect: for the individual, for their customs, for their home and for their possessions.

The Harlins began focusing on aging in place in the late 1990s after numerous client requests. Rhonda saw the need firsthand during her home visits: “People were having trouble getting in and out of bed, or in and out of the bathtub without help,” she says. “They either had to hire a caregiver, or more often, rely on their spouse for assistance. We were able to come in, do an evaluation, and provide a hoist, a bath lift or whatever other mechanics were necessary to handle the brawn of the process for them.”

In his CAPS training, Paul learned the term “visitability,” which means a person of any ability should be able to visit your home, move through the main level of the house and use at least one bathroom. “Aging in place is the ability to live in the home of your choice, in safety and in joy.”

The biggest hurdle, he agrees, is getting people to “own that our needs and abilities change over time. Think of a stair lift like a central vac,” he suggests. “Wouldn’t that be easier than hauling a heavy vacuum around? Or a washer and dryer versus a washtub. Home modifications are another convenience to make life easier as we get older.”

The key is planning. “When you remodel in your forties, fifties or sixties, think about access. It doesn’t mean the bathroom has to look like it’s for someone with a disability. The look of a level floor is spacious, elegant and also safer for grandkids all the way up to grandpa. A universally designed bathroom will give you more beauty and functionality for the rest of your life.”

And you’ll be prepared. “The worst thing is getting an emergency call for home modification from someone in the hospital who can’t come home until the house is ready,” Paul warns. “It can take eight to 10 weeks for a custom curved stair lift.”

The Harlins are taking their own counsel by installing a deck with a platform lift, a stair lift and a walk-in shower. “I’m 58, Rhonda’s 61. I’d rather have a stair lift in place to haul the laundry up and down, and save my knees to play with my grandkids,” he says.

The creativity connection

Of course, all the physical support for aging in place pales without purpose. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson termed it “generativity”: the ability to feel useful, connected and able to continue contributing one’s unique gifts for the benefit of subsequent generations.

This may be one of the most profound changes of the gray revolution: “moving from a ‘deficit’ approach that stresses losses to an ‘asset’ approach that emphasizes strengths, potential and achievements,” according to the National Center for Creative Aging.

Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, asserts, “There’s no denying the problems that accompany aging. But what’s been universally denied is the potential. The ultimate expression of potential is creativity.” Dr. Cohen’s groundbreaking research reveals a direct link between creative expression and healthy aging.

Now there’s a first-of-its-kind senior apartment community in Southern California, The Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which offers art and creativity as the core physical and intellectual unifying amenity. The community features a theater group, an independent film company, a fine arts collective, a music program and an intergenerational arts program with the Burbank Unified School District.

“It’s important to the social, emotional, creative and spiritual needs in later life to live in a community in which you can interact with a sustaining group,” affirms Healdsburg's Donna Schafer, Ph.D., CPG, executive director of the National Association for Professional Gerontologists and co-chair of the North Bay Project Connect, a program of the NorCal Chapter of the Life Planning Network. “Organizations can provide this opportunity for emotional connection and growth through social groups, churches and synagogues, neighbors and friendly visitor programs, arts programs and opportunities to give back to the community, such as SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives; a nonprofit business mentoring association).”

The boomers and those a generation ahead are initiating their own support networks, such as Elder Wisdom Circle, a Bay Area-based online nonprofit comprised of more than 600 elders aged 60 to 105 who serve as a virtual Dear Abby, volunteering their collective wisdom and experience to all who contact them.

Perhaps this is the truest definition of aging in place: Being able to enjoy an enriching experience in your later years, on your own turf and on your own terms, supported physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually to live your maturity in its fullest possible expression.


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