A community cares

A community cares

Since 1988, volunteers have helped senior citizens get to appointments, accomplish tasks, and maintain their good health in Westminster and Rockingham. Could it provide a model for a state whose population is rapidly aging?

WESTMINSTER — Vermonters have a tradition of caring for neighbors in need, particularly among their rural hills and valleys.

But with nearly 21 percent of the U.S. population predicted to reach age 85 by 2040, that casual tradition will likely be tested to its limit.

Windham County will need any number of senior health-care services to serve the rapid expansion of an aging population, yet the county's rural character discourages development of housing for seniors, and the sparse population makes it difficult for agencies to provide services.

For rural senior Vermonters, a lack of available senior housing locally often means moving away from community - family and friends. And isolation from those connections can be a death knell for an aging person.

With a dismal outlook where federal funding is concerned, communities - already strapped for cash - are under pressure to fill this gap.

One nonprofit, Westminster Cares, offers a variety of community-based programs that support healthy aging for residents in both Westminster and Rockingham.

The charity began in 1988 when Karen Walter and her late husband Frank started simply providing transportation to meetings, doctor's appointments, or programs for elders or people with disabilities.

Seeing the need, she “called a meeting of about 11 to 12 people who agreed” to provide transportation, Walter recalled. She said they “worked up a needs survey” and among them figured out how to accomplish providing for those needs.

Then, she said, “five of us hand-addressed letters” to Westminster property owners seeking volunteers for the new initiative.

“We had about 12 people who needed help, and about 30 volunteers,” out of that effort, said Walter, who for years volunteered to operate the organization from her home.

She said one of the biggest challenges was breaking through the ubiquitous native-Vermonter stoicism and self-reliance, the determination of some in need who could not or would not ask for help.

The original volunteers developed questions like, “Do you need help with your yard work?” and gentle probing to determine whether an aged neighbor had enough to eat, Walter explained.

Westminster Cares still exists primarily on the energy of some 60 volunteers “who are incredibly generous with their time,” Executive Director Donna Dawson said - and there are enough of them to keep the commitment from being overwhelming.

“We could not do what we do without the generous help of our volunteers,” she said.

Volunteers, whose average age is 50 or so, provide much of the available programming as well as the transportation to help rural seniors access it.

But local resources for nursing and care management have been hard pressed to keep up with the growing needs.

Dawson is concerned, along with many seniors and their families, that with scarce funding for either residential, assisted-living, or nursing-home care close to home, their seniors will increasingly be separated from their families and familiar surroundings and find housing “away.”

'What happens on the weekend?'

Westminster Cares has been providing Meals on Wheels since 1988, when Karen Walter first put out the call for volunteers.

At the time, Walter was the librarian at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, whose big kitchen was not in use all the time. In the 1990s, she proposed they cook for Meals on Wheels, and “the director thought it was a great idea,” she said.

But those meals were delivered only during the week and, Walter said, at least one person cared enough to ask, “What happens on the weekend? Do they just not eat?”

Sharon Boccelli, who at the time operated a café in Bellows Falls, said she told her friend Walter that “as long as there is someone to deliver them, I will prep and cook the food for delivery” out of the café kitchen.

They found weekend volunteers, and every week since, Boccelli has prepared the food and has delivered it to about 20 to 30 seniors.

Cared for by her Italian grandmother “Nonnie” while her mom worked, Boccelli said elders were valued in her community.

“Their interests and knowledge” are being lost with each year and yet another community elder's passing, Boccelli observed.

Healthy aging

Both Walter and Veronica “Ronnie” Friedman became state certified to provide a healthy-aging program adopted by the Vermont Department of Health about 14 years ago.

The program, developed at Tufts University with progressive aging issues in mind, strengthens arms and legs and helps participants maintain flexibility and balance.

Walter said she adapts classes to address participating seniors' conditions, focusing mainly on the knees, shoulders, and back. All seniors need a permission slip from their physicians to attend.

“You're supposed to feel better, not worse,” she noted, laughing.

During Walter's healthy aging class, another participant, Sharon Charuhas, told The Commons that she really notices the difference if she does not get to the classes for a period of time.

“It makes you feel so good,” said Charuhas, one of the younger participants. “I can walk longer and carry more weight.”

Eighty-one-year-old Dolly White said it gets her out, and helps her with her balance and strength.

Betty Haggerty, 72, attends the classes for all the same reasons, but she also provides rides to and from the site. She was arranging them with White as they walked out together.

Part of healthy aging is not just physical activity, Walter and Friedman pointed out. It is also socializing.

Gerry Harty, of Bellows Falls, has regularly attended the healthy-aging class downstairs at the Rockingham Medical Group “for years,” she said.

Harty, 97, said the exercise group, taught by Walter, “has played a big part in my life. Not only has it helped me physically, but it has provided companionship during the exercises. I love to get out to see the people, and I love the class.”

The social component has been important to a lot of seniors, Dawson said. Indeed, Harty noted that she has met “younger friends who have been very kind to me.”

Speaking from her home while recovering from a recent surgery, Harty gamely said, “I don't want to give it up.”

But there is no pressure to attend, she added, and Walters verified. “You can make your own decision and keep coming - until you can't,” Harty quipped.

“I'm 97,” she said over the phone with a laugh. “It's ridiculous!”

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