New South End nonprofit to help elderly age in place

Cynthia Trenshaw sits at the kitchen table in her Freeland home. She’s excited about a new non-profit group

When you get older, living at home gets more challenging. Everyday chores such as walking the dog or changing the batteries in smoke detectors take on new dimensions of difficulty.

Take Cynthia Trenshaw. The Freeland woman lives alone and suffers from a neuromuscular disease. While it hasn’t stopped her from working or staying busy, it makes some ordinary tasks nearly impossible.

“If I want to hang a picture over the fireplace, which I do, I need someone to help me,” she said.

She doesn’t begrudge her condition. It’s just part of aging and one of the price tags of remaining independent.

But life may soon get a bit easier for Trenshaw. Just this week a new organization, South Whidbey at Home, got its official status as a non-profit group and leaders say they’re on track to open the proverbial doors by summer next year.

Dedicated to helping the 55 and over club, the organization plans to provide or coordinate volunteer help for a slew of small but essential services, stuff like arranging for dog walkers or picture hangers for example. Other services might include rides to the grocery store, daily check-ins or just a friendly visit. The organization will also serve as a hub for commercial resources, providing the elderly with a list of vendors they can trust, from roofers and mechanics to the washing machine repair guy.

The idea, said Lynn Willeford, the non-profit powerhouse behind the reins of the new organization, is to help people stay at home longer, to age in place, using largely community resources. There are still plenty of details to hammer out, but the need has been clear for some time and she’s confident the service will become a reality.

“I call it ‘Living in the mystery,’” she said. “If you can’t live in the mystery, you’d never start anything.”

Willeford is renowned for founding successful non-profit groups, including Hearts and Hammers, Friends of Friends and most recently Whidbey Island Local Lending, to name just a few.

Her newest creation, however, is already pretty far along. Deciding not to reinvent the wheel, the fledgling nonprofit was modeled after Beacon Hill Village, a successful member-driven organization for Boston residents 50 and over. South Whidbey at Home already has a steering committee which governs eight smaller committees that are busy tackling everything from volunteer and vendor issues to matters of fundraising.

But the organization is still looking for community feedback and direction about just what services should be provided. A public information gathering meeting is set for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8 at Healing Circles in Langley.

Willeford’s suspicions that the new nonprofit has been needed for some time aren’t without foundation. Federal statistics make it clear South Whidbey’s elderly population is growing.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the median age on the South End increased from 44 to 54 between 2000 and 2010. People over 65 represented nearly 24 percent of the 13,630 people within the South Whidbey School District — from Classic Road south. The bureau doesn’t provide district details in yearly estimates, but it does for the county and state. Last year the median age in Island County was 47, and 39 for the state.

Gary Vallat, a Bayview resident and a South Whidbey at Home steering committee member, said most people want to age in place. That includes himself.

“I think it’s a general sentiment of older people,” said Vallat, 72. “We like the comforts of home and the things we’re familiar with.”

Vallat and his wife of 48 years hope to remain at home as long as they can, but he’s been familiar with the challenges of doing so for some time. His father is 94 and “still kicking, when he’s within range.” He made it clear to Vallat that he wanted to remain right where he is.

The trick is finding and identifying resources to make it happen. Senior Services of Island County already exists, and provides many of services South Whidbey’s elderly rely on to get by. Vallat, who is the treasurer of Senior Service’s board, said the new nonprofit can help fill in gaps, or at the very least augment some services.

Cheryn Weiser, Senior Service’s executive director, said there’s still a lot of details about the new nonprofit that have yet to be finalized so she’s unclear what services, if any, might overlap. One of the big differences between the two is that South Whidbey at Home is hyperlocal where Senior Services’ territory is county-wide. Also, the nonprofit will operate under a paid membership, she said.

Overall, Weiser said it’s a welcome addition to South Whidbey and that she would likely be working collaboratively with nonprofit leaders as it develops.

“I’m delighted,” she said. “I think it’s an innovative project.”

According to Willeford, membership fees haven’t been finalized but approximate annual figures are in the neighborhood of $200 for full membership. Limited memberships will also be available, as well as scholarships and potentially service swaps (exchanges of offering help and getting it).

Summed up, no one will be left out. A big part of this is giving members a chance to participate, give back to and be involved in their communities.

“To me the ideal nonprofit is based on a circle, meaning there are ways for those who receive to give back as well, and that those who give feel they’ve received more than they’ve given,” Willeford said.

But it won’t stop there. Volunteers can be any age, and Willeford’s head is swimming with visions of partnerships with the school district that will bridge the gap between generations and forge new relationships.

“I can see kids showing older people how to Skype,” she said.

“This program is intended to be multi-generational,” Willeford added.

As for Trenshaw, she’s waited for years for something like South Whidbey at Home to come along. She’s excited about having a central hub where she can access information or assistance, the chance to interact with people and the opportunity to give back, and of course finally getting that picture hung.

She recognizes the new nonprofit won’t keep her out of a nursing home forever, but it will delay it and make life in the interim a bit easier.

“If I can postpone that 10 or 15 years, that sounds like a really good idea to me,” she said.