A group of local residents isn’t waiting for Washington or Sacramento to come up with programs to serve Baby Boomers as they age. Instead, they are exploring innovative ways for volunteers to help older adults have meaningful lives in their own homes. And they are offering monthly programs while they take time to carefully consider options to provide additional services.

The group, Carquinez Village Project, hopes to provide programming, assistance and service referrals to older adults. The group took its name from the Village movement that began in Boston in 2001. The program is based on the principal that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support older adults. “This is about the community, about the community’s needs, about the community supporting our seniors,” says Judie Donaldson, who co-chairs the Carquinez Village Project with Lois Requist. They head a steering committee of 14 Benicia and Vallejo residents who are looking at the feasibility of opening a Village locally. They also are learning about other models for providing services, Donaldson adds.

There are about 160 existing Villages nationally. An additional 160 groups, including Carquinez Village Project, are in development, says Susan Poor of San Francisco, co-president of the Village to Village Network, an affiliation that helps provides support to Villages across the country.

The model of a grassroots organization established by older adults to serve their peers is gaining traction. “The number of Villages doubles every two to three years. It’s clearly touching a nerve,” says Andrew Scharlach, Kleiner Professor of Aging at Cal Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, and director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services. Scharlach also serves on the research committee of the Village to Village Network. He began studying Villages in 2009, including an ongoing project that started following nine California Villages in 2011.

Villages rely on volunteers to assist their members, though many have some paid staff as well, Poor says.  Services vary from group to group based on the community’s needs.  Support can range from finding volunteers to provide transportation and help with household chores to offering referrals and discounts for service providers. Transportation and computer assistance have been identified as key needs locally, Donaldson and Requist say.

Villages also typically organize social and cultural programs that build a sense of community.  Events vary from Village to Village, with existing Villages offering programs such as potlucks, happy hours, group hikes, parties, outings to concerts and visits to museums and historical sites. “There are two things people say are the greatest benefits of being part of a Village: a sense of security, knowing that when or if you need help or someone to talk to, there is somebody there and somebody who knows you. The second benefit is the sense of community, the sense that you matter,” Scharlach says. “We have had some preliminary evidence of some very positive impacts, and the jury is still out whether in the long run people are really going to be able to age in place, or end up with better health or personal outcome due to Village membership. At least at this point, people are getting their needs met.”

Increasing need for services

The need for assistance is growing as Baby Boomers age. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2010 that 12.5 percent of Benicia’s population was age 65 and older. The bureau projects that the percentage will grow nationwide to 21 percent by 2030. Our changing society isn’t geared toward families caring for older relatives as it once was. Jobs are less stable and younger generations often don’t live near older relatives, Scharlach explains. “That’s coupled with what is a general lack of faith in traditional government-sponsored services, as well as a real dearth of those services,” he says. Most public services are geared to lower-income seniors. “We have a system that is designed to help people when they are most down and out, not to help people who are healthy and want to stay active.”

Requist recalls comments from a John Muir Hospital gerontologist at a recent Aging by Design conference. “He said that as you age, you become more vulnerable. Say you go to the doctor but you don’t get your medications quite right. Or you trip over a rug. Or you can’t change a light bulb. Or you don’t get to the grocery store so you just eat what’s there,” she says.

Professional help isn’t required to address most seniors’ needs, Poor points out. “When doctors and social workers look at these needs, they say about 10 percent is medical care,” she says. “The other 90 percent of needs are outside the medical field: Can you walk your dog? Can you get to your church or the grocery store? That’s where the demand is. That’s what a Village does. It brings people together and provides strong peer-to-peer support. It doesn’t replace existing services, but supplements them.” Poor says most Village members join when they are able to provide assistance to others, before they will need help from other Village members. “It’s like buying insurance. It’s there if you need it,” says Requist. “You get the social benefits, the interactions with others, even if you don’t need other services.”

Evaluating local Village viability  

The Carquinez Village Project began after 75 people turned out in January to hear the founder of Lamorinda Village speak at the Benicia Library. A follow-up meeting in February led to the creation of the steering committee. “We are in the exploratory stage,” Donaldson says. “We don’t know what geographic area we might cover. We get asked that all the time, along with how much dues will be. We just don’t know yet. We are investing time in a feasibility study to see what is possible.”

That initial research is critical to success, Poor and Scharlach say. “You have to treat the Village as a start-up business,” says Scharlach. “That doesn’t mean just financial capitalization, but also in terms of knowledge and service resources and social resources.” Nationwide, Villages rely on membership dues to provide 50 percent of their income, he says. “You need to figure out a way to supplement with other sources of income.” Donations and grants account for most Villages’ remaining income. His studies show annual dues range from $20 to $1,200, and most Villages offered discounted rates. Both Requist and Donaldson say that if Carquinez Village is deemed viable, they want to develop a dues schedule that allows all older adults to join. Poor says some Villages receive funding from local governments, but that is not common at this time.

The other key to viability is attracting members and volunteers. “It’s critical to figure out what your niche is: What is the unique value of your organization? Why should somebody become a member? Sometimes the value is on a particular service, such as transportation, and sometimes the value is much more intangible. Sometimes it’s a feeling of being part of something,” Scharlach says.

The work takes time, and the local leaders are committed to being thorough. “People hear about the Village and they’re excited. But we are not a Village, and we’ve learned that it takes two to three years to get a Village started,” Donaldson says. “That’s a long time because people need help right now.” She adds that the group is exploring what services it might be able to provide in the near future in addition to the monthly speakers at the library.

The next step is becoming a charitable organization or finding an existing charitable organization to sponsor the group while it does preliminary organizational work. “We don’t want to go through the process of becoming a 501(c)3 (the IRS code for charitable organizations) if it isn’t feasible to continue,” Requist explains. Donaldson and Requist hope the feasibility study shows that a local Village would be viable. Donaldson wants Carquinez Village to become a dynamic, sustainable organization. “I would love for it to serve people with everything from getting them to dialysis sessions to offering classes so it would make a difference in the community. I would love for people to say, ‘Move to Benicia—or stay in Benicia—because we’ve got this fabulous Village.’ ”

How to get involved

To learn more about the Carquinez Village Project or to get involved with the group:

•Attend programs at the Benicia Library at 10:30am the third Thursday of every month. On Aug. 20, Benicia police officer Aldo Serrano will discuss how to protect yourself from scams. The September program will focus on money management.

•Visit the group’s website: carquinezvillage.org

•Sign up for the group’s e-alert list by emailing carquinezvillageproject@gmail.com