Martha Ross POSTED 08/13/2014 10:00:00 AM PDT Oakland Tribune
John Stull, left, a volunteer with the North Oakland Village, spends time with Ray Miller in Miller's Oakland, Calif. home, Thursday, July 24, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)
Jaki Jepson and Ray Miller love their 1902 Craftsman in Oakland's Dimond
District. Jepson and Miller, both 76, bought the home in the late 1970s for $48,000 and prize its original woodwork and proximity to a library and Park Boulevard shops and restaurants.After a fire 10 years ago, Ray remodeled the tiny, cramped kitchen into a large, sunlit space where he could indulge his passion for cooking, but Ray no longer cooks. A series of health crises has left him weak and unable to walk, dress or leave his bed or chair. Even with Ray's health problems, Jaki and Ray have no intention of moving into a retirement community or assisted living facility. They want to stay in their home as long as possible and are grateful the North Oakland Village is there to help.The village isn't a place; it's a working philosophy. The community-based social support organizations already in place throughout the Bay Area help people deal with many of the day-to-day challenges as they age.
North Oakland Village connects its 50 or so members to free or affordable rides, home repair services and social and educational programs, such as a monthly potluck at its offices in the First Congregational Church on Harrison Street. None of the villages provides health care needs. Jaki has asked volunteers for help to take Ray to doctor's appointments. Volunteers also keep company with Ray, who can't be left alone, on Thursdays so Jaki can run errands, go out with friends or get together with other village members, who have also become friends." At first, it was a social outlet for me," Jaki says. "I instantly loved the people. I went to a couple receptions, and these are people I would choose for my friends. They are very caring, nterested and interesting."
For a growing number of people, Jaki and Ray's experience is a picture of how they would like to continue to live independently in the homes and in the communities they know and cherish.
John Stull, above, a volunteer with the North Oakland Village, shows photos from his recent trip to the Grand Canyon to Ray Miller as Miller's wife, Jaki Jepson, looks on in their Oakland, Calif. home, Thursday, July 24, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)
North Oakland is part of a growing grass-roots movement that aims to allow people to "age in place." More than 120 villages operate in the United States, Canada and Australia, according to the Village to Village Network. The East and South bays also have groups in place. Another 100 are in development, including three in the East Bay, which in the next two years will welcome Clayton, Walnut Creek and Lamorinda into the fold.
"It's about seniors taking back control," says Patsy Barich, one of the founding members of the new Greater Walnut Creek Village. By staying in their homes longer, they also save the often steep costs associated with moving into a retirement community or assisted living facility.
The movement started in 2002 with a group of friends in Boston's Beacon Hill who wanted an alternative to the "warehouses for the elderly" that can separate people by age and backgrounds.
Villages typically form tax-exempt nonprofit organizations or partner with existing agencies that already have a menu of services in place. Members decide what services each village will provide and how to pay for them, usually through a combination of annual dues and volunteers. The North Oakland Village, for example, charges a yearly fee of $600 for an individual and $750 for couples.
"We basically look at what it would take for people to live independently in their homes," says Judith Coates, one of the founding members of the North Oakland Village. Coates admits "pure selfishness" was part of her motivation in starting the village with others.
"I've lived in my house off Piedmont Avenue now 34 years," she says. "I've always joked I needed to stay there until they carried me out. I thought at some point I might need some assistance."
In some ways, villages try to provide the sense of community and practical support offered by close-knit extended families. Latinos and African-Americans, Coates says, have a tradition of multiple generations living together, and they may be less likely to join villages. But for others, the village becomes that family support they may not have.
A 2014 study by UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare and the Pacific Institute for Research credits villages with offering a "promising new model" for improving services for America's growing aging population. Most villagers surveyed for the study said they rely on the villages most for socializing and then for transportation, household assistance and help with technology.
At the North Oakland Village, volunteers help with simple chores or home repairs, such as changing a light bulb. For more complex repairs, North Oakland and other villages provide lists of prescreened companies.
With their emphasis on bolstering social connections, villages can "positively affect" seniors' lives by reducing isolation. Members who get the most out village life volunteer or participate in village-sponsored events.
Villages, however, may be limited in how much they can help people stay in their homes, because most don't provide personal care, disease management or other health care services, the study noted.
So far, Mary Bulf, 90, of Palo Alto, is managing to stay put, thanks to the Avenidas Village. Bulf, a retired teacher, was eager to rebuild her social life after caring for her husband, who died of dementia in 2005. But she gave up driving a few years ago and has dealt with health problems that make it difficult for her to stay on her feet for very long.
Through the village, she has found rides to doctor's appointments and to monthly "lunch bunch" meetings with friends at area restaurants.
She also volunteers for the village in a way that lets her work from home, calling members to tell them about upcoming meetings and the availability of a binder that contains information about end-of-life decisions.
"I love doing this," she says. "I've met so many nice people that way."
Perhaps more than anything, she says, the village offers her a "feeling of security." She's known of people who were able to get through health crises without giving up their homes.
"They just have to call, and (the village) will make arrangements to bring food or someone to take you to the doctor and get you help to keep your house going.
"They'll call you every morning if you want," she says. "I'm not ready for that yet."