LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The aging of America is about to pick up speed. Next year, the first Baby Boomers will turn 65. The number of seniors will more than double in coming decades in what some folks call a silver tsunami. One thing that's not expected to change: the overwhelming majority of the elderly will want to grow old in their own homes. The challenge of doing that will be greater, as Americans live longer than ever. But across the country, in ways high tech and low, a quiet revolution aims to help. Today, NPR's Jennifer Ludden begins a series on Aging at Home, and her first story takes a look at seniors who are reaching out to the neighbors for support.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: In their large kitchen, with its view into the backyard garden and pool, Betty O'Connor hands a glass of water to her husband Jack.
(Soundbite of ice falling into glass)
Ms. BETTY O'CONNOR: It's been a long day. There you go.
LUDDEN: Betty is 80. Jack, 85. Five years ago, he suffered brain injury after a fall. A recent hip replacement left him frail. Then, an allergic reaction to the anesthesia stole even more of his memory.
Ms. O'CONNOR: This is my miracle man. And Jack and I do not want to leave the house.
Mr. JACK O'CONNOR: Oh, no. I don't know what the alternatives are, but I can't think of a good one.
LUDDEN: Actually, Betty knows exactly what the alternatives are: assisted living, a nursing home. She's visited these places. She doesn't like them at all.
Ms. O'CONNOR: It's very depressing. It's very depressing. We're seniors. It's true. But we like to be around young people, and we like to be around different people. I mean, not the same - there's so many walkers over there, and I feel sorry for them, because they're in these long corridors and - I don't know. I just like the openness here.
LUDDEN: Desperate to stay in their own home, the O'Connors have a plan: If and when Jack can no longer climb the stairs, they'll convert the first floor family room to a bedroom. But they know they won't be able to manage alone. They'll need help, and they have a plan for that, too.
Ms. O'CONNOR: Deirdre, nice to meet you Deirdre. We always like to have people have name tags on.
LUDDEN: In Chevy Chase, Maryland, the O'Connors are part of a group of people banding together to help each other grow old at home. Betty's taken the lead in spreading the word and recruiting members. On this day, she's brought out four dozen people - nearly all women - to mix and mingle at the community center. There are cookies and lemonade in the corner.
Unidentified Woman #1: You're looking very, very spring-like, Ann.
LUDDEN: These get-togethers are the first step to creating what's called a village. It's a growing movement. There are 50 of these non-profit groups across the country, 100 more in the works. Their mission: to do whatever they can to help neighbors stay put.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Ms. JULIE MAGGIONCALDA (Capitol Hill Village): Capitol Hill Village, this is Julie speaking. How can I help you?
LUDDEN: This Washington, DC, village is run out of a row-house basement. In three years, it's signed on 350 members. There's an annual fee - five $800 dollars - to pay for a small staff. Members can then make all manner of requests, day or night.
Ms. MAGGIONCALDA: A carpet cleaner, we have some of those. We have a vendor for that actually, hold on one second.
LUDDEN: There's also a long list of volunteers to help with odd jobs. On another phone call, Julie Maggioncalda tries to make sure someone's garden gets watered.
Ms. MAGGIONCALDA: I actually just tried to attempt to call him this morning to see what the status was of his garden, 'cause I knew he had a nephew coming who could water at the moment.
LUDDEN: A lot of villages are in better-off neighborhoods, but Capitol Hill and others use private grants or public money to offer steep discounts to those who need it. And frequent-callers may well get their money's worth.
Ms. GAIL KOHN (Executive Director, Capitol Hill Village): Fix my computer, program my watch, or why is it I can't download that?
LUDDEN: Executive Director Gail Kohn says tech help is a big need. So is transportation. The village coordinates rides to doctor's appointments, the grocery store, the airport. Then there are activities to help keep members in shape.
Ms. KOHN: We have a third of our volunteers who are 30 and younger, and they very much like playing Wii with our members, which helps the members with balance.
Unidentified Woman #2: Take your right hand, reach for your right toe. How does that feel?
LUDDEN: The Village also puts on this monthly balance class. In the basement of a local library, a dozen seniors perch on the edge of chairs, bent over a leg. The hope is that all this stretching may help prevent a dangerous spill in the shower or a tumble down the stairs.
Unidentified Woman #2: Is that where you feel it?
Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, yeah?
Unidentified Woman #3: I feel it more up here.
Unidentified Woman #2: You feel it in your bottom?
LUDDEN: Exercise, tech-help, car rides - it may sound like small stuff, but added together, this support can have a huge impact. For some, members say it can make the difference between feeling the need to move into assisted living, or having the confidence to stick it out on your own a few more months, maybe years.
Ms. PATRICIA WITT: I can manage, thank you.
Unidentified Man: Well, I...
LUDDEN: Patricia Witt climbs out of the passenger side of a car in front of her Capitol Hill townhouse. She wears those boxy, black sunglasses seniors like. And she's leaning on a walking cane. A village volunteer has just brought her home from a doctor's appointment.
Ms. WITT: Well, thank you very much.
Unidentified Man: You're very welcome.
LUDDEN: Witt is 75. She's had a heart valve replaced. She's nearly lost sight in one eye, and is recovering from surgery in the other. After a bit of fumbling with the lock, she gets in the door.
Unidentified Man: Okay. Bye-bye.
Ms. WITT: Well, I made some ice tea this morning, if you would like some.
LUDDEN: That sounds lovely.
One of the hardest parts of creating a village is getting seniors to ask for help. From childhood, we're urged to do things on our own. When that suddenly changes, aging experts say it can feel alien and depressing. But as her heart and eyes started to fail her, Patricia Witt says she felt vulnerable.
Ms. WITT: I'm so afraid I'm going to fall. And so then, of course, I've got stairs here.
LUDDEN: Pretty steep ones, in fact.
Ms. WITT: But those - that's really good, because I could go up on my knees, actually. I can crawl upstairs.
LUDDEN: The front stoop, though, was a menace. Capitol Hill Village found a handyman to put up a railing. The village rides save cab money. And knowing she has a support group to call on means her children - who live in the Midwest -don't have to worry so much. Most of all, Witt says being part of a neighborhood village allows her to keep her privacy and independence.
Ms. WITT: I mean, I love my children and they're very supportive of me, and we have a lot of same interests.
LUDDEN: But to live with them? No thanks. This is her home, Witt says. She plans to stay here as long as she can.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: You can find out how to start a village in your neighborhood at our website, npr.org. This afternoon, you can hear Jennifer's report on a very different approach for keeping seniors in their homes. In some instances, the sons and daughters of these seniors are using motion seniors to monitor their parents.
Unidentified Man: They may know that their mother got up in the morning, that she's been to the kitchen, she's opened the refrigerator, she's taken her medicine.
WERTHEIMER: That's today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
In neighborhoods across the country, groups of people are banding together to help the elderly stay in their homes. These non-profit groups are called "villages," and they help provide seniors with security, practical help and companionship they need to stay happily in the home they love.
Patricia Witt credits the Capitol Hill Village for helping her stay in her home. Volunteers drive her to doctors' appointments and help with household repairs.
Becky Lettenberger / NPR
Part one in a four-part series
In Chevy Chase, Md., Betty and Jack O'Connor are part of a growing number of people banding together to help each other grow old at home.
Betty is 80, Jack, 85, and it's something of a triumph that they're still living independently in their suburban house, with its backyard garden and pool.
Jack suffered a brain injury in a fall five years ago. Since then, a hip replacement has left him frail, and an allergic reaction to the anesthesia in that operation stole even more of his memory.
"This is my miracle man," Betty says. "And Jack and I do not want to leave the house."
"Oh, no," Jack agrees. "I don't know what the alternatives are, but I can't think of a good one."
Actually, Betty knows exactly what the alternatives are. She has visited friends in assisted living and nursing homes, and she says she finds such places depressing.
"We like to be around young people," she says. "There's so many walkers over there, and I feel sorry for them because they're in these long corridors."
So the O'Connors have a plan: If and when Jack can no longer climb the stairs, they'll convert their first-floor family room to a bedroom. But they'll still need help, so Betty has begun recruiting friends and neighbors to help create what's called a "village," an organized network of volunteers dedicated to doing what's needed for seniors to stay in their own homes. For an annual fee, these communities help seniors manage household tasks they can no longer handle and arrange transportation when they can no longer drive.
Creating A Village
There are already 50 of these nonprofit groups around the country, with 100 more in the works -- and it's a trend that's expected to gain steam as baby boomers hit their golden years. Village organizers say the key is training seniors to reach out and request help, something that doesn't come easily.
"We spend our lives from childhood being told, 'Be independent, do this for yourselves,' " says Gail Kohn, executive director of Capitol Hill Village in Washington, D.C. "Then we get to a certain point when we say, 'We want you to ask.' That's alien to all of us, and it feels like dependence."
In three years, Capitol Hill Village has signed up 350 members. The $500 to $800 annual fee pays for a small staff, which helps coordinate a long list of volunteers.
The village office is a borrowed row-house basement, where Julie Maggioncalda manned the 24-hour telephone help line one recent morning. She connected one member with a carpet cleaner, one of an array of vendors the village vets for reasonable rates and reliability. On another call, she lined up a volunteer to water someone's garden. Organizers stress that no need is too small.
A lot of villages are in better-off neighborhoods, but Capitol Hill and others use private grants or public money so they can offer a steeply discounted annual fee to those who need it.
And frequent callers may well get their money's worth.
Kohn says tech help is a big need: " 'Fix my computer,' [or,] 'Program my watch,' or, 'Why is it that I can't download that?' "
Transportation is also popular. The village coordinates rides to doctors' appointments, the grocery store and the airport. It has sent volunteers to ride along in the ambulance when members have had to go to the emergency room. There are also regular social outings, plus activities geared to keep members in shape.
"We have a third of our volunteers who are 30 and younger," Kohn says, "and they very much like playing Wii with our members, which helps the members with balance."
The village even sponsors a monthly balance class in the basement of the local library. The aim is to help prevent a dangerous spill in the shower or a tumble down the stairs.
Exercise, tech help and car rides may sound like small stuff, but added together, such support can have a huge impact. Members say it can make the difference between feeling the need to move into assisted living and having the confidence to stick it out on one's own for a few more months -- or even years.
A Support Group
On a leafy Washington side street, Patricia Witt, 75, slowly climbs out of a car in front of her white brick townhouse. She wears those boxy, black sunglasses that seniors like, and she's leaning on a walking cane. A village volunteer has just brought her home from yet another doctor's appointment and escorts her to the door.
"Well, thank you very much," she tells him as she fumbles for her keys. Witt has nearly lost sight in one eye and is recovering from surgery in the other. She has also had a heart valve replaced. She can't bear the thought of leaving her home but admits that she has begun to feel vulnerable.
"I'm so afraid I'm going to fall," she says. "So then, of course, I've got stairs here." They're steep and narrow. But in her desire for independence, Witt even rationalizes that.
"I could go up on my knees, actually. I can crawl upstairs," she says.
But her open front stoop had become a menace. Capitol Hill Village found a handyman to put up a railing. The village rides save her cab money. Mostly, though, knowing that she has a support group to call on means her children -- who live in the Midwest -- don't have to worry so much.
"I love my children, and they're very supportive of me," she says. "But you can't live together. It's very difficult."
For as long as possible, Witt hopes the village can help maintain her privacy and independence in the home she loves.