Aging in Berkeley: It Takes a Village

By Shirley Haberfeld
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:45:00 AM

Do you remember that first phone call from your eldest sister? “What are we going to do about Mom—she doesn’t want any help and she won’t move out of the house.” That call set the stage for the last years of your widowed mother’s life. She still lived in the house where you grew up, she’d had some recent falls and sometimes was a bit confused on the phone, but she was still involved with her Wednesday bridge club and tried to get out to church occasionally. Four of her friends died in the last three years—and so did your father.  

Well, now I’m the Mom and I don’t want to wait until one of my kids has to make a phone call like that. In February 2006, the New York Times published an article about a community that had formed in Boston—Beacon Hill Village—dedicated to helping residents in the community age in place—that is, stay in their own homes—not in remote institutions. The article sparked a conversation between neighbors who met in an Elmwood living room. Our interest was an outgrowth of our own personal experiences as we’ve cared for or found living arrangements for aging parents or dealt with chronic illness with family or friends. And each story was different yet somehow the same and we wanted our aging to be different. We wanted to find a way to continue to age in the self-sustaining community that we cherish and to plan for our later years now, before a crisis. We wanted to help our friends and neighbors too. Most of all was a deeply held desire to be in charge of those later years and more important—we wanted our kids to know our wishes.  

Since January 2007 a group of seven women have been meeting to discuss ways we could support one another, as we grow older—much like the Boston project but with the innovative spirit we only find in Berkeley. Our personal stories aren’t unique, because senior healthcare and associated conditions are a significant policy issue in the U.S. as the population ages. The 65 and older population is projected to increase to 88.5 million in 2050, more than doubling the number in 2008 (38.7 million). The 85 and older population is expected to more than triple, from 5.4 million to 19 million between 2008 and 2050.  

So, given all the statistics, the Beacon Hill model and our own ideas, we decided to found Ashby Village, a non-profit membership organization to provide the information and access to services that help members remain at home as they age. An Ashby Village member will make one phone call to the Ashby Village office to arrange assistance with a specific problem or to find an activity or event they might be interested in. The small Ashby Village team will not only respond quickly to requests for services or information; they’ll make a follow-up call to make sure everything is going well. A wide range of referral services (paid for by the member) and program benefits (free) are currently being developed. Some services such as home care, household repairs, etc., will be paid directly by the member—however we expect to be able to provide discounted rates. The staff will also research, assess and monitor the “approved” service providers.  

The annual cost of membership is $1,200 per household and $750.00 for an individual. What makes this model unique? The heart of the Village is the grassroots community with its core free and discounted (brokered) services mechanism through which services are delivered—through a grassroots, member-based, one-stop shopping. It’s taking a local partnership building process where local service providers, community institutions, medical providers, philanthropists, and organizers come together to create a menu of services for members wishing to live independent of senior residential homes.  

Critical to this model is the active leadership and participation of the members themselves in every aspect of the programs. The services fall under the headings of Arts and Cultural, Health and Wellness, Community Connections and Daily Living. In addition to reducing the isolation that happens to many seniors, the model enhances communication in many cases, reducing the gaps in services that are provided by others in the community.  

The overall goal of Ashby Village is to create strong, healthy communities in which older adults can remain independent with increased security and quality of life in multi-generational, familiar setting … their own homes and neighborhoods. Our tentative launch date is spring of 2010. We expect to hire an executive director this fall to pull together the organizational structure and relationships. At this time, LifeLong Medical Care—a well regarded group of community health centers in Berkeley and Oakland is acting as the Ashby Village fiscal agent—enabling AV to accept tax deductible donations and apply for grant funding. Since late 2008 we have presented Ashby Village to many Berkeley and North Oakland residents through “living room chats”—a one and a half-hour informal presentation with questions and answers. People are enthusiastic and have joined working committees and some have taken on short-term projects. To schedule an Ashby Village Living Room Chat for you and a group of friends and/or neighbors, email: General information— info@ashbyvillage.org or membership@ashbyvillage.org. The phone number is 510-204-2860—a member of the Board will get back to you within 24 hours. But first, visit our website at www.Ashbyvillage.org for more general information Working together to Provide members with the practical means and the confidence to remain in their own homes, as they grow older.