Vineyard Village at Home works to keep seniors at home

Polly Brown, principal proponent of Vineyard Village at Home, knows how important it is for seniors to stay independent as long as possible. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In the case of the unflappable Polly Brown, quiet serenity was the dominant vibe as she discussed the efforts of Vineyard Village at Home this week.

Ms. Brown sat at her dining room table where the plan was hatched five years ago to help keep Vineyard seniors living in their homes and on the Island. “We developed the idea in November 2006 and launched on January 1, 2007,” Ms. Brown said of the group that provides day-to-day services so that seniors can continue an independent lifestyle so dear to the independent Island soul, regardless of age.

“I was seeing so many people leaving their homes and the Island as their mobility became compromised and I just felt we should not be losing these great people and characters from our community,” Ms. Brown said.

To date, the volunteer group has served nearly 100 Island seniors by helping them retain the rhythm and quality of daily living they have always enjoyed: going to the supermarket and medical appointments or the bridge group. Vineyard Village at Home (VVH) has also vetted a cadre of Island businesses and volunteers who will quickly and reasonably fix a leaky pipe or balky appliance. A group of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School volunteers rake leaves, wash windows, and shovel snow.

Like its quiet, thoughtful founder, VVH’s 40 volunteers tend to be people who think about the happiness of others. And they often get as much out of volunteering as they put in.

“A new volunteer told me the (volunteer) experience was more fun than he could ever have imagined,” Ms. Brown said. “Volunteering does turn out to be fun and interesting. Our members have a whole bunch of life experiences and they like to share. For example, one member is a well-respected artist who gave a presentation on children and art recently.”

Currently, VVH has 55 members. “These are people who have led rich, full lives that they are able to share with our community,” Ms. Brown said. “They have some stories.”

Membership costs $475 a year, $600 for a couple, which works out to about one-quarter of the cost of private transportation to and from life’s errands. Even these modest rates can be a challenge for some prospective members, however. “We’ve had a scholarship program in the past and we’d love to reinstate that,” Ms. Brown said.

VVH is intended to complement, not compete with, existing organizations. “We fill in the gaps where Island service organizations have needs,” Ms. Brown said. “We don’t duplicate the work, say, of Meals on Wheels, Vineyard Nursing Association, or Community Services. In fact, we talked to the Island service groups before we began, to determine where we could help. They use us as a resource and we are able to refer our members to those organizations for the services they provide.”

A Harvard Law School graduate, Ms. Brown spent 16 years as a telecomm executive. She knows her way around planning and coordinating. She is secretary of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital board and the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center board. She serves on the hospital’s medical ethics committee and has served on the board of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard.

“We are a nonprofit, funded by a small medical services grant from Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and member fees,” Ms. Brown said. “Our annual budget, with one employee, is about $60,000. We are currently without that staffer, so I’m filling in. Volunteer drivers receive a small stipend for their service. We’re hoping to renew the hospital grant and we’re actively seeking contributions of money and volunteers,” she said.

Vineyard Village at Home does not have a fundraising event. “There are so many fundraisers on the Island already,” Ms. Brown said. “We prefer to work from grants and contributions. The work the volunteers do should be important enough to the community to be self-supporting.”

Cheryl Best is the Vineyard Volunteers coordinator. The board is composed of Michael Loberg, David Roush, Bill McConnell, and John Schneider.

Ms. Brown understands she’s in a growth market. “We project that as the Island ages, demand for our services will double within the next five years,” she said.

With five years of experience to draw on, Ms. Brown has developed a profile of members. “Independence is a major issue for seniors,” she said. “The desire for an independent life is important to our members. Some want to be able to go out for the services they need, others prefer to receive them at home.”

Ms. Brown also noted the value of membership to the off-Island children of seniors. “Kids worry about their parents,” she said. “They are relieved to know there is a service like Vineyard Village available to their parents. Often they lobby their parents to become members. Seniors can be resistant, but like many things in life, we come to enjoy things we think we don’t want or need.”

There is also a community-extending aspect to the work, Ms. Brown explained. “One of our volunteers is a women with small children,” she said. “As her relationship with a member deepened, our member became a surrogate grandmother to the kids. She goes to dinner and family events at their home. The kids look forward to her visits. They love her.”

Ms. Brown said that VVH is always looking for more resources. She is scouting venues for additional outings to complement two favorite meeting spots for volunteers and members, the Vineyard Yacht Club and the Chilmark library.

And then there’s manpower and funding. “We are looking to get the word out for additional volunteers and donations,” Ms. Brown said. “The demand is growing and the goal is to keep our residents at home on the Island by providing whatever services they need.”

For more information on volunteering and membership, please call 508-693-0154. Contributions may be sent to: Vineyard Village at Home, P.O. Box 1356, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.