Village movement takes root among UC Berkeley’s dynamic elders



Need a ride to the doctor’s office? Someone to clean out your rain gutter, accompany you to a movie or help write your memoir? If you’re 50 or older, and pay your membership dues, Ashby Village may have just the right person for you.

Launched just over a year ago in the San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay, the 170-member social network — driven in considerable part by expertise and membership from the University of California, Berkeley — is among the newest additions to the Village Movement, a nationwide, neighbor-helping-neighbor effort that has spread to more than 50 U.S. cities and communities.

“It’s about being engaged with a lot of really smart people and trying to figure out what we want our community to look like as we get older,” said Steve Lustig, former associate vice chancellor of health and human services at UC Berkeley, and an Ashby Village board member.

Next week (Oct. 24-26), the Village to Village Network, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities manage their villages, will host its annual conference in Oakland. An envoy of some two dozen Ashby Village members will attend. Speakers will include UC Berkeley social welfare professor Andrew Scharlach, whose research on aging-friendly communities has contributed to the Village Movement’s success.

There are currently 65 villages in operation in the United States, and 115 being developed. Scharlach, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Advanced Study of Aging Services, is launching a nationwide survey to identify the successes and failures of the Village Movement. He sees a hunger for an alternative to spending one’s older years in a retirement home, assisted living facility, with relatives or feeling isolated. Demographers project that by 2050, one in five Americans will be seniors and part of a wave they call the “Silver Tsunami.”

“We’re all getting older and have seen our parents go through the aging process. We don’t yet have good structures in place, but we’re working on it,” Scharlach said.

The grassroots Village Movement was started in 2002 by older academics and other professionals in Boston, Mass., who wanted as seniors to stay in their homes and neighborhoods, remain connected to like-minded people and have easy access to service providers. Their answer was to create Beacon Hill, a village that now boasts more than 350 members whose ages range from the low 50s to the high 90s.

Ashby Village, launched in 2010 with $80,000 in membership fees and donations from charter members, is in its early youth. But its numbers have grown fast through such recruitment strategies as neighborhood “Living Room Chats” and the chance to be part of an exciting movement, something bigger than oneself. The annual fee is $750 for individuals and $1,200 per household.

Calls to the Ashby Village switchboard range from the mundane to the extraordinary. Take Joan Cole, 82, a psychologist who taught social welfare at UC Berkeley. When dementia prevented her 89-year-old husband from completing his memoir, she asked Ashby Village for a volunteer. Michelle McGuiness, a young lawyer, showed up and created a video version.

“He has a sense of completion,” Cole said of her husband. “It’s a miracle.” In addition, McGuiness is among several volunteers who spend “movie night” with Cole’s husband when Joan Cole attends her Thursday night Berkeley Broadway Singers chorus.

“So everyone is happy, and I have peace of mind,” Cole said.

Like UC Berkeley itself, Ashby Village tends to attract scholars who think outside the box. Not surprisingly, many members cut their teeth in the 1960s counterculture movement, and have been politically active and/or community-minded ever since.

“A village takes on the culture of that community,” said Andy Gaines, executive director of Ashby Village and one of its two paid staff members. “Our members are very interested in creating aging in a different way and being part of an alternative movement.”

With a corps of 60 trained volunteers, preferred service providers, and a highly active membership, Ashby Village – headquartered on Durant Avenue across from the Berkeley City Club – is among nine villages to each receive a $100,000 grant from the Archstone Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on improving the quality of life for elderly Americans.

“If villages are successful and sustainable, then together we will be pioneers in a movement that will be tailored to meet the needs of an aging population,” said Joseph F. Prevratil, president and CEO of the Archstone Foundation.


Gaines hopes to see membership double, and more volunteers and service providers added to meet the increased demand. In addition to a fall membership drive, the village continues to build relationships with organizations including the UC Berkeley Retirement Center, Lifelong Medical Care and Jewish Family and Children Services of the East Bay.

At least one-third of Ashby Village members volunteer to help other members, which increases the sense of engagement the organization is striving for.

“It’s when they’re giving or receiving help that people feel most connected,” said Lustig, 66, who is working on a strategic plan for Ashby Village with the help of village member William Webster, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and former vice provost of academic planning and facilities.

On Nov. 3, Ashby Village is hosting an event to foster even stronger connections with UC Berkeley. Efforts will include recruiting student volunteers and forging ties with the UC Berkeley Retirement Center, which serves some 14,000 individuals and their spouses, including 7,500 retired UC Berkeley staff, 1,000 faculty emeriti, 2,500 members of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the UC Office of the President.

Patrick Cullinane, director of the UC Berkeley Retirement Center, reports that more than 600 new retirees became members of the center during the 2010-11 fiscal year, and that it is open to networking with organizations such as Ashby Village and The Berkeley Project, in which UC Berkeley students and city residents work together on public service efforts.

Sondra Jensen, 69, came to UC Berkeley as a student in 1959, and went on to work in the campus’s human resources and housing and dining divisions. Since retiring a few years ago, the Ashby Village member and volunteer has built “Smooth Moves,” a business that helps elderly people downsize in preparation for moving from their homes to smaller places or retirement facilities.

“We’ve met people who should have moved years ago,” she said. “Had they had Ashby Village, they may not have had to move, but they didn’t have that support.”

She has yet to ask the village for personal help. However, with her husband recently disabled from a spinal cord injury, she anticipates a time will come when they will need both practical assistance and the camaraderie provided through their Ashby Village membership.

Herb Strauss, 75, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of chemistry, said he was grateful for his membership when he spent an entire day at Oakland’s Kaiser Permanente Hospital being evaluated for emergency surgery. His exhausted wife, Carolyn North, called for help, and volunteers sat with her during the surgery that evening, then drove her home.

“Our kids are scattered around the country, so we’re more isolated than we’d like to be,” Strauss said.

Even though her children are close by, Cole said she doesn’t want to “wear them out” by calling them each time her husband, who’s in hospice care, takes a fall.

As for the future of Ashby Village, said Cole, “I want this to be here when my children grow old.”