"Aging in place:" A way to stay at home
It takes a village to raise a child, as Hillary Clinton once observed, but senior citizens need a village too. Polly Brown of Vineyard Haven came to this realization several years ago and after extensive research and planning, Vineyard Village at Home (VVAH) began. A community without walls, the organization charges a yearly membership fee ($900 per individual, $1,200 per family) that entitles them to be provided with quick response from an array of volunteers and service providers at either a discounted or competitive price. In many cases it enables people 55 (minimum age) and older to continue living in their own homes as they grow old.
Ms. Brown, a tirelessly public spirited woman who has served on several community boards, spent last weekend at the Agricultural Fair in West Tisbury spreading the word about VVAH.
"We're up and running now, and it's very exciting," said Ms. Brown, seated at a booth with VVAH program coordinator Jane Hawkes.
The non-profit organization that began operating in January now has 27 members aged 63 to 100, and a list of 39 on-call volunteer drivers and 51 professional service providers from plumbers to electricians, to caterers and hairdressers.
"It's been absolutely amazing to me how receptive service providers have been," Ms. Brown said. "I don't know anyone who hasn't wanted to be on a list, and I don't know anyone who wasn't willing to give a discount. The service providers have been just wonderful. They understand what this is all about and they want to help."
Providers have been quick to sign up so far, but Ms. Brown hopes to enlist commitments from many more. Her goal is to have enough helpers available so that members can always be assured of getting their requests met promptly and at manageable or no cost.
"As we get more members we're going to have more requests," said Ms. Brown. "We need a long list of providers so we can give prompt service without it being a burden on any one individual."
"Elderly people can't live without water or heat," said Israel Ziegenhorn, a Vineyard haven plumber and a VVAH provider. "I drop everything so I can help. I try to fix everything the same day if the parts are available.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
"They're very happy that they can actually find someone, that they only have to call one person," he said. "I think what they like best is the security. When they do have a problem then I'm there."
According to Ms. Brown, Mr. Ziegenhorn recently received a 9 am call saying that a member needed a new water heater.
"He was up there within an hour and had it fixed by noon," said Ms. Brown. "She was absolutely thrilled."
Available currently are plumbing and electrical work, health care, companionship, meal preparation, and financial assistance. A yoga instructor, an acupuncturist, and a clutter and organizing consultant are on the list as well as housepainters, handymen, and more. Members can receive a medication review by a professional pharmacist, an in-home safety survey, or assistance creating a customized household information notebook. Providers agree to respond to calls promptly and perform projects at a discounted rate. According to Ms. Brown, some even carry out smaller jobs at no cost. All providers are scrupulously screened.
Transporting seniors who no longer drive or do not drive at night is an important service, Ms. Brown says. Along with offering rides to medical appointments or grocery shopping, she wants to have enough volunteers on call so that members can get rides to visit friends, go to a restaurant, or attend social and community gatherings.
Delivering the benefits
Vineyard Village at Home had its beginnings while Ms. Brown was assessing the need for a continuing care retirement community here. While meeting with focus groups she got the clear message that although a number of residents were interested in a facility for themselves or family members, many older Vineyarders would prefer to stay in their homes if services were readily available. Ms. Brown explored models throughout the country including Beacon Hill Village, a well-established program serving elders in Boston, and believed the format for a network to provide services at home would work in this community. The reception VVAH is receiving from both members and providers show that her prediction was accurate.
Members pay an annual fee which enables them to call a single phone number when a need arises, rather than going through telephone books to try to find a provider. Better yet, response time is prompt. They need not wait for a callback, make repeat calls, or find themselves on a waiting list for a necessary repair or some other assistance.
To encourage more subscribers, a bargain half-price annual membership fee of $450 per individual and $600 per household is in effect only through Sept. 30. On Oct. 1, the fees will be $900 and $1,200. The revenue goes towards operating expenses: the program coordinator's salary and office costs. The Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha's Vineyard has made $2,000 available for scholarships to assist those Islanders who may wish to sign up but cannot afford the fee.
Ms. Hawkes says the organization wants to be as inclusive as possible so that any Island resident can join. "We are not in competition with existing services for the elderly," she says. "We provide services that fill in where gaps exist."
VVAH connects members with other Vineyard agencies that are able to fulfill their requests when appropriate, rather than duplicating existing services.
Along with transportation and services, occasional social events are a pleasant benefit of membership. On July 10, the organization held a wine and cheese reception for members, friends, and prospective members at Polly Hill Arboretum and will schedule other gatherings and outings through the year.
Although Ms. Brown is actively pursuing her original vision of a continuing care retirement community for the Vineyard, she is gratified by the response to VVAH and confident that it will grow and serve many, many Islanders.
"The idea is to keep the character of the Vineyard, have the people who know the Vineyard and love the Vineyard be able to stay here if they want to," Ms. Brown said, "not have them required to move off because we don't provide the services they need as they get older."
For more information, call Jane Hawkes, 508-693-3038 or visit vineyardvillage.org.