LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The aging of America is about to pick up speed. Next year, the first Baby Boomers will turn 65. The number of seniors will more than double in coming decades in what some folks call a silver tsunami. One thing that's not expected to change: the overwhelming majority of the elderly will want to grow old in their own homes. The challenge of doing that will be greater, as Americans live longer than ever. But across the country, in ways high tech and low, a quiet revolution aims to help. Today, NPR's Jennifer Ludden begins a series on Aging at Home, and her first story takes a look at seniors who are reaching out to the neighbors for support.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: In their large kitchen, with its view into the backyard garden and pool, Betty O'Connor hands a glass of water to her husband Jack.
(Soundbite of ice falling into glass)
Ms. BETTY O'CONNOR: It's been a long day. There you go.
LUDDEN: Betty is 80. Jack, 85. Five years ago, he suffered brain injury after a fall. A recent hip replacement left him frail. Then, an allergic reaction to the anesthesia stole even more of his memory.
Ms. O'CONNOR: This is my miracle man. And Jack and I do not want to leave the house.
Mr. JACK O'CONNOR: Oh, no. I don't know what the alternatives are, but I can't think of a good one.
LUDDEN: Actually, Betty knows exactly what the alternatives are: assisted living, a nursing home. She's visited these places. She doesn't like them at all.
Ms. O'CONNOR: It's very depressing. It's very depressing. We're seniors. It's true. But we like to be around young people, and we like to be around different people. I mean, not the same - there's so many walkers over there, and I feel sorry for them, because they're in these long corridors and - I don't know. I just like the openness here.
LUDDEN: Desperate to stay in their own home, the O'Connors have a plan: If and when Jack can no longer climb the stairs, they'll convert the first floor family room to a bedroom. But they know they won't be able to manage alone. They'll need help, and they have a plan for that, too.
Ms. O'CONNOR: Deirdre, nice to meet you Deirdre. We always like to have people have name tags on.
LUDDEN: In Chevy Chase, Maryland, the O'Connors are part of a group of people banding together to help each other grow old at home. Betty's taken the lead in spreading the word and recruiting members. On this day, she's brought out four dozen people - nearly all women - to mix and mingle at the community center. There are cookies and lemonade in the corner.
Unidentified Woman #1: You're looking very, very spring-like, Ann.
LUDDEN: These get-togethers are the first step to creating what's called a village. It's a growing movement. There are 50 of these non-profit groups across the country, 100 more in the works. Their mission: to do whatever they can to help neighbors stay put.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Ms. JULIE MAGGIONCALDA (Capitol Hill Village): Capitol Hill Village, this is Julie speaking. How can I help you?
LUDDEN: This Washington, DC, village is run out of a row-house basement. In three years, it's signed on 350 members. There's an annual fee - five $800 dollars - to pay for a small staff. Members can then make all manner of requests, day or night.
Ms. MAGGIONCALDA: A carpet cleaner, we have some of those. We have a vendor for that actually, hold on one second.
LUDDEN: There's also a long list of volunteers to help with odd jobs. On another phone call, Julie Maggioncalda tries to make sure someone's garden gets watered.
Ms. MAGGIONCALDA: I actually just tried to attempt to call him this morning to see what the status was of his garden, 'cause I knew he had a nephew coming who could water at the moment.
LUDDEN: A lot of villages are in better-off neighborhoods, but Capitol Hill and others use private grants or public money to offer steep discounts to those who need it. And frequent-callers may well get their money's worth.
Ms. GAIL KOHN (Executive Director, Capitol Hill Village): Fix my computer, program my watch, or why is it I can't download that?
LUDDEN: Executive Director Gail Kohn says tech help is a big need. So is transportation. The village coordinates rides to doctor's appointments, the grocery store, the airport. Then there are activities to help keep members in shape.
Ms. KOHN: We have a third of our volunteers who are 30 and younger, and they very much like playing Wii with our members, which helps the members with balance.
Unidentified Woman #2: Take your right hand, reach for your right toe. How does that feel?
LUDDEN: The Village also puts on this monthly balance class. In the basement of a local library, a dozen seniors perch on the edge of chairs, bent over a leg. The hope is that all this stretching may help prevent a dangerous spill in the shower or a tumble down the stairs.
Unidentified Woman #2: Is that where you feel it?
Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, yeah?
Unidentified Woman #3: I feel it more up here.
Unidentified Woman #2: You feel it in your bottom?
LUDDEN: Exercise, tech-help, car rides - it may sound like small stuff, but added together, this support can have a huge impact. For some, members say it can make the difference between feeling the need to move into assisted living, or having the confidence to stick it out on your own a few more months, maybe years.
Ms. PATRICIA WITT: I can manage, thank you.
Unidentified Man: Well, I...
LUDDEN: Patricia Witt climbs out of the passenger side of a car in front of her Capitol Hill townhouse. She wears those boxy, black sunglasses seniors like. And she's leaning on a walking cane. A village volunteer has just brought her home from a doctor's appointment.
Ms. WITT: Well, thank you very much.
Unidentified Man: You're very welcome.
LUDDEN: Witt is 75. She's had a heart valve replaced. She's nearly lost sight in one eye, and is recovering from surgery in the other. After a bit of fumbling with the lock, she gets in the door.
Unidentified Man: Okay. Bye-bye.
Ms. WITT: Well, I made some ice tea this morning, if you would like some.
LUDDEN: That sounds lovely.
One of the hardest parts of creating a village is getting seniors to ask for help. From childhood, we're urged to do things on our own. When that suddenly changes, aging experts say it can feel alien and depressing. But as her heart and eyes started to fail her, Patricia Witt says she felt vulnerable.
Ms. WITT: I'm so afraid I'm going to fall. And so then, of course, I've got stairs here.
LUDDEN: Pretty steep ones, in fact.
Ms. WITT: But those - that's really good, because I could go up on my knees, actually. I can crawl upstairs.
LUDDEN: The front stoop, though, was a menace. Capitol Hill Village found a handyman to put up a railing. The village rides save cab money. And knowing she has a support group to call on means her children - who live in the Midwest -don't have to worry so much. Most of all, Witt says being part of a neighborhood village allows her to keep her privacy and independence.
Ms. WITT: I mean, I love my children and they're very supportive of me, and we have a lot of same interests.
LUDDEN: But to live with them? No thanks. This is her home, Witt says. She plans to stay here as long as she can.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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WERTHEIMER: You can find out how to start a village in your neighborhood at our website, npr.org. This afternoon, you can hear Jennifer's report on a very different approach for keeping seniors in their homes. In some instances, the sons and daughters of these seniors are using motion seniors to monitor their parents.
Unidentified Man: They may know that their mother got up in the morning, that she's been to the kitchen, she's opened the refrigerator, she's taken her medicine.
WERTHEIMER: That's today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.