Caption: Volunteer Paul Wolff finishes new ADA Compliant handrails for member Susan Carleton.
Photo submitted  

While industries across the state are gradually reopening under new modifications, vulnerable members of the population are still cautioned to stay at home. Seniors are among that population.

Governor Gavin Newsom said in a recent press release unveiling the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, “Until an effective vaccine is distributed, Californians must wear a mask every time they’re with people outside their household. Residents must take activities outside and maintain distance even with loved ones who do not live with them. Californians must realize that the safest place to be is still at home. And the elderly and those with medical conditions should still stay away from others as much as possible.”

For seniors that often means more separation from family members who don’t share their home as well as the rest of the community possibly resulting in loneliness and depression.

SLO Village, a countywide membership organization that supports seniors living independently in their own homes as they age, is working to change that with new programs to help isolated residents stay active, engaged and connected to family and friends.

“Our services are needed now more than ever,” said Meredith Bates, SLO Village volunteer coordinator and member of the board of directors. “Our members are missing visits from family members and connections with SLO Village folks helps fill that void. The pandemic has left many feeling lonely and loneliness has been compared as health hazard equivalent to smoking ½ a pack of cigarettes per day.

“Most older adults want to remain in their own home because they can keep their own schedule, it’s cost effective and familiar. When older adults were surveyed, 90% wanted to age in place. Many older adults do not want to become a burden to their family and need to be able to care for themselves as much as possible as they age.”

SLO Village, founded in 2016 as a seniors-helping-seniors organization, offers members everything from social connection and education to help with grocery shopping, transportation and household tasks through connections to volunteers.

Membership in the organization is open to SLO County residents 60 years or older. The annual membership fee with full access to all services is $500 per individual or $750 for household. Access includes a screened network of service providers for home repairs, yard work, or any service required to live at home. These vetted vendors often provide their services at a discount to Village members. 

Currently, there are 43 full members ranging in age from 62 years-old to 103 with the average in their 80s.
Volunteers are at the heart of the organization. Right now, there are 53, up from 42 since the pandemic started, and more are always welcome.

“We carefully screen our volunteers and they must pass a background check,” Bates said. “One advantage for our volunteers is that they don’t need to commit to specific days or hours, they accept assignments that fit with their schedules and interests.”

Volunteers provide transportation, assistance with shopping and household chores, gardening, light home repairs and maintenance for members.

“Our volunteer base has held steady and we have some super volunteers that are continually active,” Bates said. “We have a phone tree that connects volunteers and members to check in regularly. We make extra efforts to check on our members without computer access.”

The biggest need at this time is people who can do shopping for members, drive them to medical appointments and help with technology. There is also opportunities for volunteers interested in remote opportunities such as helping with the phone tree, a pen pal program and hosting zoom activities.

Richard Kriet, a retired physical therapist who has been a SLO Village volunteer for about two years, does a lot of gardening for members, gives rides to folks and, pre COVID-19, swam about once a week with a another member who is about to turn 104 years-old.

“You always get the feeling that you are doing something useful, which is really nice, and it is really immediate, “ said the 67-year-old. “There are some really incredible people that are members, so I get the chance to get to know them and interact with them. I can truthfully say I’ve always felt like I’ve gotten more out of it than I’ve given in every instance.”

The challenges created by COVID-19 required the group to retool many of its offerings virtually overnight to address needs of active seniors who could not leave their homes. That meant suspending the popular luncheons and in-person get togethers, which were very popular among members.

“Before COVID, we regularly had around 50 folks participate in our monthly luncheons, and we held quarterly all-Village events,” Bates said. “Most older adults relish the idea of meeting new people and having novel experiences. Our luncheons offered a meal as well as connections between members and volunteers. Just because people age (doesn’t mean) they aren’t still curious.”

Maintaining the level of entertaining, active, and social experiences within covid-19 restrictions meant new approaches to programs.

“We put our heads together and came up with new ideas that have proven popular and very much in demand,” said SLO Village executive director Kerry Sheets.  “We would never have guessed a pandemic would help us expand, but that’s exactly what has happened.”

Some of the programs and services now available:
• Porch Visits a volunteer brings his or her own chair to visits a housebound senior. Visits are conducted outside at the member’s home, with both parties six feet apart and wearing masks.  Request For porch visits have soared.  For some isolated seniors, the visits mark the only personal contact shared since COVID precautions began.
• Fun Bags for members – Goodie bags are stuffed with gratitude journals, coloring sheets and colored pencils, personal notes written by children and volunteers, puzzles, note cards for members to send to friends and family and fire department “File of Life” materials and are delivered to members. 
• Zoom webinar presentations (including tech help for seniors needing a little how-to guidance) include topics like Best Practices for Staying Healthy during COVID-19 and Staying Mentally Healthy During COVID-19.
• Member check-in phone calls are made by volunteers. Email blasts with reminders about heat wave management and other concerns are sent frequently.
• Bi-monthly movie discussions via Zoom reviewing SLO Film Festival offerings and other films are underway, as are weekly Zoom happy hours and coffee chats. A book group is in formation.
• Grocery shopping, medical appointment transportation and other help requests have increased and are being met by Village volunteers.

“Some of our more popular activities are on zoom at present are weekly coffee chats, happy hour on Saturdays, and movie night,” said Bates. “We cannot have indoor in-person activities. However, we transport members with our safety protocol to medical appointments, we help with yard work and handyman chores. Our social events are on zoom. We can have small gatherings at local parks with masks and social distance.”

Information about SLO Village is available on the group’s website at www.slovillage.org.

SLO Village is a founding member of Village Movement California. There are 50 Villages statewide, more than any other state. It is also part of the national Village Movement.