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Aging in place

Seniors are finding inventive ways to stay in their beloved homes - and hometowns - as long as they can

Bill Johnson, volunteer for a fix-it program in Sudbury, checks a smoke detector for Shekhar Mehta. Bill Johnson, volunteer for a fix-it program in Sudbury, checks a smoke detector for Shekhar Mehta. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)
By Steve Maas
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2009
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Back in the ’70s, Tamara Bliss and her friends joined baby-sitting pools to take care of one another’s children.

Today, those children are in their 40s, and Bliss and some of those same friends are pooling their resources to take care of themselves as they head into their senior years.

“There may be good reasons to move to a retirement community,’’ she declares, “but not being able to get that big trash can from the basement to the front walk should not be one of them.’’

Bliss is the president of Newton at Home, one of a burgeoning number of organizations that aim to help people age in place. They envision a combination of paid and volunteer services to see to the practical, health, and social needs of their members.

“Most of us have raised our families here. It’s a wonderful community. Why would we want to leave?’’ says Bliss, a native New Yorker who moved to Newton in the late ’60s. “What attracts so many of us is that we’re used to having a lot of say in our lives, and we don’t see why that should be different when we’re 75, 80, 85, or even 90.’’

Residents in Wellesley, Wayland, and Lincoln are organizing similar intentional communities, or villages, as they are often called. Meanwhile, the not-for-profit Carleton-Willard Homes Inc., which owns a retirement village in Bedford, has established a separate division to coordinate an intentional community serving residents in Bedford, Carlisle, Concord, and Lincoln.

The communities intend to supplement, not replace, existing services, such as those provided by councils on aging. They aim to fill in the gaps and offer the personal attention and relationships that are lost as family and friends die or move away.

“This intermediary organization is more like a club, a church, or temple than a government,’’ says Janet Giele, vice president of Wellesley at Home and a retired professor of sociology at the Heller School at Brandeis University. “We are so oriented as a society toward a market, the grocery-shopping approach. You go in and get what you want. The nature of human caregiving is not a grocery-shopping experience. It’s a sense of mutual obligation, of loyalty, of friendship, or a word we never use, love.’’

Launched by Boston’s Beacon Hill Village in 2002, the aging-in-place movement has spread to some 40 cities and towns across the United States. While the evidence is only anecdotal, it has benefited from the downturn in the economy. Because they have trouble selling their homes, some seniors have put off buying into retirement communities, and ravaged stock portfolios make it difficult for them to afford the fees.

By contrast, many intentional communities charge well under $1,000 for annual membership. As much as possible, the communities enlist volunteers to provide services, drawing on students, community and church groups, and the members themselves.

Volunteer networks have the added benefit of bridging generations and giving seniors a new sense of purpose. Seniors may tutor teens, who in turn may teach their mentors how to use the Internet. Younger symphony-goers may give rides to older concert fans. A senior savvy in home repair may serve as a consultant to another retiree who is interviewing contractors. A woman in her 90s who uses a wheelchair may have lost mobility, but she can be enlisted to call five other seniors every morning to make sure they are OK.

Bliss notes the social advantages as well: “In the course of doing a Newton at Home activity, you find a person who shares a passion you have. It may be bridge, ballet, or travel. Maybe the person you used to do that with is no longer in your life, so you stopped doing it.’’

Establishing an intentional community typically takes several years.

“We don’t come with degrees in this arena of health and social care,’’ says Charles Raskin, a retired clothing salesman who is a member of the Independent Living Options task force of Wayland and Lincoln. “We’re learning as we go.’’

Organizers of the various intentional communities have formed committees to examine what other towns are doing, survey residents, assess volunteer potential, vet vendors, and devise membership packages. They hope to start a pilot program within a year and be fully operational within two years.

Bliss says the Newton group has some 45 people involved in planning and more than 200 households on its mailing list. Organizers include retired social workers, lawyers, teachers, economists, and IT specialists.

“I like to think of myself as a talent magnet,’’ says Bliss, who holds a doctorate in organizational studies and worked in management and human resources in state, corporate, and academic settings.

Bliss credits SOAR55 (Service Opportunities After Reaching 55) with helping Newton at Home develop a business plan and recruit volunteers.

Mary Ann Cluggish, the president of Wellesley at Home, has long been active in community affairs, both as a founder of the recycling center and as a current library trustee. Cluggish says an essential role of the new group will be to provide a friendly voice on the other side of the line for people looking for help. She notes that dozens of groups in town offer volunteers, but few outside their organizations know about them.

“There isn’t any coordinating body,’’ she says.

Cluggish stresses that the Wellesley group wants to reach as many seniors as possible.

“We’ve been told there is a perception that this is only for the affluent,’’ she says. “That’s definitely not the case. It’s for those people who don’t want to move into a retirement community or can’t afford to.’’

She says seniors frequently raise transportation as a major concern, especially for day surgery.

“All these daytime procedures have created a whole different environment than used to exist,’’ she says

Cluggish and Giele head up a 12-person executive committee, which oversees a 25-member task force. About 100 people are on the group’s mailing list. A pair of MBA students from the Heller School will draw up a business plan as a summer project at no cost to Wellesley at Home, which hopes to launch within 18 months.

While other communities are still in the planning stages, Carleton-Willard at Home is already accepting members and plans to be in operation by fall. While building on the parent organization’s experience in elder care - its roots go back to 1884 - the new division will operate separately with “its own heart and identity,’’ says Stephanie S. Smith, who is coordinating the program until a director is hired.

Smith, director of public relations for Carleton-Willard Village, says the intentional community is not designed to be a recruitment vehicle for the village, which “has a healthy waiting list.’’

Like the other intentional communities, it plans a network of neighborhood-based social and wellness programs. It is also vetting service providers and negotiating discounts for members while hoping to draw on volunteers as much as possible. The annual membership fee is $600 for an individual and $850 for a couple.

In Sudbury, the town’s Senior Center already provides many of the services intentional communities plan to offer. Its corps of more than 200 volunteers performs services such as home repairs, visiting housebound seniors, giving rides to medical appointments, and offering legal, medical, and insurance advice. The center has a specialist who offers referrals for contractors, nursing services, even a hairdresser who makes house calls.

Senior center director Kristin Kiesel estimates the value of volunteer services in the last fiscal year at $200,000. But as impressive as the townwide program is, Kiesel isn’t satisfied.

“Neighbors helping neighbors really is the way to go,’’ she says.

Working with groups such as local churches, Kiesel is “looking for a catalyst to come along to help this jell so that in the end we get a community of caring.’’

Program benefits

Many intentional communities for senior citizens charge well under $1,000 for annual membership. Typical benefits include:

--A contact to call for a list of vendors who can provide a range of services, from home maintenance and improvement to home companions and 24-hour nursing care.

--Regular wellness activities, such as Tai Chi and yoga, offered at neighborhood locations.

--Social activities, such as weekly potluck dinners, afternoon coffees, book clubs, and trips to museums and arts events.

--Transportation to the grocery store, medical appointments, and social events.

Nearby resources

To learn more about intentional communities, contact:

--Carleton-Willard at Home: 781-276-1910 or e-mail ssmith@cwathome.org. For residents of Bedford, Carlisle, Concord, and Lincoln.

--Newton: newtonathome.org.

--Sudbury: www.sudbury.ma.us; enter Council on Aging in search box. Or call 978-443-3055.

--Wayland/Lincoln: Call Wayland Council on Aging at 508-358-2990; ask about the Independent Living Options Task Force.

--Wellesley: wellesleyathome.org