Petaluma seniors join Village program

Villages are membership organizations for people ages 60 and up, with a goal of helping each other remain in their own homes as they age.|

The story goes that one winter day in Boston a couple in their 60s were cleaning ice off their roof, the wife holding onto the husband with a rope. They decided that day there had to be a way to continue to live the way they wanted, independently, without someone risking his neck.

They started talking to friends and Beacon Hill Village was born, the first Village program designed to help older adults remain at home and keep healthy and socially active through a virtual community of attentive neighbors, local service providers and volunteers.

The Boston program, now 13 years old, inspired a national trend. There are now 120 such Villages in the country, more than 20 in California. The first Sonoma County Village opened this month in Petaluma.

Villages are membership organizations for people ages 60 and up, linking neighbors or town residents in a network, with a goal of helping each other remain in their own homes as they age rather than move to a retirement or senior living facility.

Members pay an annual fee (the national average is about $600) which pays for a director and an office that connects members with each other and various services. Retired Kaiser physician David Strange in Petaluma doesn’t worry about scraping ice but he’s wary of risky home repairs. In his case, it was a smoke alarm that needed a new battery. Having promised his wife to never climb another ladder, Strange had to put up with “the damn chirping thing” for days before he found someone to do the job.

Today, as a member of the Village Network of Petaluma, help would be a phone call away.

Strange, 90, would call the office, located in an old appliance store in downtown Petaluma. The office would dispatch someone to replace the battery and Strange could concentrate on his latest project, organizing a book club with his new pals in the Village Network.

Prime organizer of the Village Network in Petaluma is Anne Greenblatt, a retired career counselor with Stanford University and Sonoma State University, who read about the Village concept in an AARP magazine tied to a poll that said 90 percent of Americans want to stay in their homes as they age.

Greenblatt and her husband had newly moved to a condo in Petaluma, downsizing from their Forestville home on two acres. Preparing for the future was already on her mind.

“We’d started thinking we were going to be very isolated when we could no longer drive,” said the energetic 71-year-old.

Neighbors helping neighbors is not a new idea, but in an era when people make more friends on Facebook than over the back fence, neighbors don’t always know who needs help.

Some of Petaluma’s early sign-ups are “single people, alone in their home, with no living relatives or whose kids live far away,” said Greenblatt who likes to think of a Village as “mobile co-housing.”

Nationally, programs vary in organization and style, some more social, some more service-oriented. Most offer both, from home repairs to walking partners.

Villages commonly offer a list of local providers such as plumbers, lawyers, health care professionals and home care agencies who have been vetted and may offer discounts.

But much everyday help is free, members swapping one’s gardening muscle for another’s computer know-how.

In Petaluma’s first month the office answered requests for rides, help hooking up a DVD player, flipping a mattress, even oiling a squeaky hinge, said Doris Nelson, executive director.

Health-wise it’s known that people are often less stressed, exercise more and engage more intellectually when connected to a community.

Certainly when you don’t have to worry about a ride, you likely get to the doctor more regularly, said Strange. And enlisting someone else to climb a ladder could reduce falls and trips to the emergency department.

“All it takes is one bad fall to go from independence to dependence,” he said.

A study by Dr. Andrew Sharlach of UC Berkeley on the benefits of participating in a Village style program includes improved well-being, increased confidence and reduce social isolation. The study found the benefits are more for those who are healthy and active, less for those in poor health.

It costs. Petaluma members pay $55 a month, $80 for a household. Petaluma has a membership of 35 with a goal of more than doubling in a year and eventually offering subsidized memberships.

Avenidas Village in Palo Alto, begun in 2007, has 415 members, operates under the umbrella of the senior center, offers 200 vendor services from landscapers to mobile dental hygienists and has a 24/7 help-line.

Membership is not necessarily for life, said director Vickie Epstein.

For some “it’s transitional,” she said. “If there is a catastrophic health issue or cognitive decline,” people may need to look at an assisted living facility.

But some Avenidas members have lived at home until they died. The oldest current member is 102.

An informational meeting at the Village Network office in Petaluma will be at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 11 at 402 Petaluma Blvd. North. For information, call 776-6055.

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at

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