Aging is a challenge but we have many advantages here in San Mateo County. Number one is the weather. It’s neither too hot nor too cold. We don’t have to worry about winter snow storms and slipping on ice. It is expensive to live here but most would agree if you can afford it, it’s the best place to be. But even though we live in one of the best places on Earth, growing old is a challenge and not for the faint of heart. If you are lucky enough to live a long life, one of the prices you pay is losing your network of friends or worse, a spouse. After you quit a busy life of work or raising children you also may lose a large network of people you see every day. Retired seniors often struggle to fill a void. The sudden lack of a connection they once enjoyed with colleagues, not to mention the experience of accomplishment, can come as an unpleasant shock. Retirement can be very lonely if you are not smart. And loneliness is not healthy.
In fact, according to a Palo Alto Medical Foundation study, seniors who are lonely have a 45 percent increased mortality rate of six years compared to seniors who are not. They also have twice the rate of falling or losing strength.
You can be lonely even if you still have a spouse at home, especially if you become the caregiver; you can be lonely even if you live in a senior facility. And, of course, if you live alone and do not have family and friends close by, you can become very isolated.
Still, most people prefer to live at home if they are able to do so. At some point, seniors who live at home will require help. And the older one gets, probably the need for help will increase.
In 2002, a group of seniors in Beacon Hill, Massachusetts decided to pool their talents and their needs and form a village. It was one of the first senior villages in the country. Now the movement is well past 100 throughout the country and there are several villages in the Bay Area. The original goal of Beacon Hill was to help seniors stay in their homes.
Now the new goal of Beacon Hill is to get seniors out of the house and into the community — to have purposeful engagement. For nothing is better for one’s health — better than many pills — than to have a purpose. Taking classes. Working out at the gym. Walking with friends. Playing bridge or bingo. Helping someone else through volunteer work. Tutoring students at school. Volunteering at church or at a nonprofit like Samaritan House. Or volunteering as part of a senior village.
The village concept is simple. Neighbors helping neighbors. But in an organized way. It’s usually started by a few people in a neighborhood, it’s a grassroots effort started by local citizens, communities of seniors helping other seniors, doing what they can to help fellow members remain in their own homes as long as possible. Driving, meal preparation, social events, etc. — whatever it takes to create the social support and satisfaction on the part of both those volunteering and those receiving help.
The idea is to coordinate a web of volunteer support, information and a connection to resources.
There is usually a fee to become a member of one of these senior villages. In Foster City, which has 65 members, it’s an all-volunteer and no-paid-staff venture so far. The dues are $1 a day or $365 a year; for two people $475 a year. Sequoia Village for residents of Redwood City, San Carlos and Belmont is just getting started. Fees will be between $30-$80 a month. In the MidPeninsula ( San Mateo, Hillsborough, Burlingame) and on the Coast, villages are in the planning stages. Here are the contact numbers: Foster City Village, 378-8541; Sequoia, 260-4569; Coastside, 728-9494; MidPeninsula, 434-2455.
Still, organizing a village is difficult, say those who try. It can easily take two to three years before a new aging-in-place community can roll out services. Still, it’s a movement which has caught on across the country, in California, in the Bay Area and in San Mateo County.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.