Volunteers help maintain ‘virtual retirement village’
By Ann McCreary
At 81, Ken Westman considers himself to be a “pretty active” guy. But he knows there are some chores he doesn’t want to attempt anymore, like climbing a ladder to change smoke alarms.
So when Westman heard last year about Methow At Home, an organization dedicated to helping people continue living independently in their own homes as long as possible, he decided to look into it.
“It sounded interesting. Age-wise I was a good candidate. I don’t have any support at the house other than my Boston terrier,” said Westman, who lives in Winthrop.
Westman signed on as a member of Methow At Home, which means he can get support to help him continue living on his own at home.
“I put out a call to get my smoke detectors changed. I said no more ladders. Forty-eight hours later I had my smoke detectors changed,” Westman said.
But Westman isn’t only a recipient of services. He’s also joined the ranks of community volunteers who provide the services that help people remain at home.
Not long after he joined Methow At Home, he received an email through the organization seeking a volunteer to spend a few hours a week with a man who has Alzheimer’s disease, so that his wife could get out of the house for a while.
“I know both of them. I’ve been sitting with him each week for the bulk of two months,” Westman said. “I spend a couple or three hours with him. It’s something I can do.”
The concept of both receiving and giving services is key to how Methow at Home operates, said Deirdre Cassidy, Methow at Home coordinator. About half of the people who sign up to receive services are also volunteers who provide them.
Supporting people at home
Methow At Home was launched in December 2015. It is part of a nationwide movement aimed at helping people continue to live in their own homes and be actively engaged in their community.
Members pay annual dues to receive services, which include things like:
• Transportation to medical appointments, shopping, errands, social and educational events.
• Household support including minor handyman services, light housekeeping, light gardening or snow shoveling.
• Personal and social support, meal preparation, temporary respite care and help de-cluttering.
• Technical support for computers and other electronics; bill-paying assistance.
• Referral to professionals such as plumbers and electricians when a requested service is beyond the scope of a volunteer.
• Educational activities such as speakers on topics of interest to members.
• Social events such as hikes and potlucks.
Methow At Home now has 104 people who are members, and about 69 volunteers, Cassidy said. Individual members pay $300 per year and couples pay $456. Subsidies are available for people unable to afford the full amount.
The Methow Valley has an aging population, and Methow At Home is a way for community members to help each other continue living here as long as possible, Cassidy said.
A 2013 census report cited on the Methow At Home website notes that more than 20 percent of people in Twisp and Winthrop are 65 or older, and an estimated 40 percent are 60 or older.
“We never know when something’s going to happen and we will need help,” Cassidy said. “It’s like an insurance policy.”
Virtual retirement village
Methow At Home is based on the concept of a “virtual retirement village,” which got its start in Boston 15 years ago.
These virtual villages are member-owned organizations that coordinate access to support services to help people live independently.
“The national movement of virtual villages … now includes over 200 villages in the country, including some in Canada and Mexico,” said Betsy Weiss, president of the Methow At Home board of directors.
“The model has a lot to be said for it. It’s a community-based idea that helps people stay in their own homes. When you talk to older people, that really is the first choice for most people to do that as long as possible,” said Weiss, a retired physician with a background in caring for aging patients.
The virtual village approach in the Methow Valley “grew out of discussions of the needs of older people for options in housing” in the valley, Weiss said. “The cost of assisted living seemed out of reach for most people in the valley.”
A steering committee was created a couple of years ago to explore the idea of a virtual retirement village in the Methow Valley, and the result was Methow At Home.
Methow At Home belongs to a national Village to Village Network, which supports virtual villages. The national organization offers resources that include mentoring for villages in the network, and a database to communicate with village members and track delivery of services, Weiss said.
The average age of Methow At Home members is 72, with members as young as 58 and as old as 90, Cassidy said. About half of the members are also volunteers, she said.
Volunteers are screened and trained, and asked to indicate what kinds of services they can provide, from walking dogs to meal preparation.
When a request for services is received from a member, Cassidy sends an email notification to volunteers to arrange for someone to meet the request.
Cassidy said Methow at Home is sometimes confused with home health care organizations that provide assistance on a routine or daily basis. Methow at Home is designed to provide targeted services on a one-time or occasional basis, she said.
For instance, a member who was moving needed help with packing, organizing and dump runs. Another broke a toe and needed some help with meal preparation; another member asked for help organizing and uncluttering kitchen cabinets.
Methow At Home has provided help with winterizing, sweeping pine needles off roofs, cleaning gutters and repairing screen doors.
Earlier this summer, through collaboration with the University of Puget Sound, a dozen Methow At Home members received free home assessments from graduate students in the university’s occupational therapy department.
Students evaluated ways to make the homes more “user friendly” and address issues such as accessibility, lighting and safety.
Having a membership in Methow At Home can help people feel more comfortable asking for assistance, Weiss said.
“People can use the service for a great variety of things that otherwise might go undone, or if they feel they are taxing family members. When you have a membership, there’s an ease about asking,” Weiss said.
“All the volunteers feel like they get something out of the interaction with the member,” she added. “It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”
For Westman, knowing that assistance is available to him “is kind of like a security blanket. I’m sure there will be things I need.”
And, Westman said, volunteering is just as important. “A person ought to volunteer if you’re going to ask for some services. Everybody has something they can do.”
Many requests for assistance are “social requests,” Cassidy said.
“One lady doesn’t feel comfortable walking alone, so we connected her with volunteers who walk with her,” she said.
Social connections provided through Methow At Home are an essential part of the program. The organization sponsors a variety of regular social events including potlucks, bike rides, lectures, films, hikes, clothing exchanges and happy hours.
Westman said he’s attended all the potlucks and has gotten to know new people through the Methow At Home gatherings.
“People enjoy learning, enjoy meeting new people,” said Weiss, who has hosted afternoon films at her house for Methow At Home members.
“Having the network to support people, and making new connections is the part that’s really fun,” she said.
“This is an incredible community to live in and do this kind of project in,” Weiss said. “People are so committed to providing a caring safety net for people.”
Concert benefits Methow At Home
A concert featuring singers and songwriters Hank Cramer and Ken Bevis will be hosted by Methow At Home on Sept. 8 at the Twisp Valley Grange. The performance is open to the public and admission is by donation. Bring finger food and beverage of choice. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.