Seniors retain independence through cooperative program

Larissa O. Padden

After Marjorie Reilly's husband died in February 2007, the 86-year-old was determined to live alone in her house for as long as possible. 

So Reilly's daughter, who lives in Boston, found the New Hartford-based program Sunset Neighborhood, which helps seniors live independently by offering services from daily phone calls to helping arrange yard care or social activities. 

“They've been a godsend to me,” Reilly of Utica, N.Y., said. “If I need someone to do some cleaning or shovel the snow, they take care of it.” 

Reilly is one of about 30 members in the Sunset Neighborhood program, which was started in May 2007. The program incorporates the services of care managers, nurses and social workers who focus on care their members require from day-to-day. 

“Our program isn't a place where you can go, we come to you,” Executive Director Carol Jubenville said. “We want to make sure that seniors are safe and secure in their own homes.” 

The fees for the program vary depending on the services provided. Residents also can get recommendations for vendors who provide work such as lawn care, snow removal and housekeeping. 

“You do have to pay for those services, but you don't have to use the vendor we suggest,” Jubenville said. “What we do is give them options. We find the best price, sometimes negotiate a discount, and always make sure that there is someone present to make sure nobody gets taken advantage of.” 

The program has offices at its sister corporation, Sunset Wood Apartments, a retirement community, where Jubenville also is executive director. 

Along with the basic services, Sunset Neighborhood also has paired with the North Utica Senior Center and the Parkway Senior Center to offer social opportunities. 

“It's no fun to go to dinner alone, and you can't play cards by yourself,” program Director Kathy Smith said. “A caveat of this program is that life is enjoyable.” 

There was a need

“This all started because we saw a need here at Sunset Wood,” Jubenville said. “If someone age 92 came here today, I would have to put them on a waiting list. To wait even three weeks is unacceptable.” 

In June 2006, Jubenville began talking with Boston's Beacon Hill Village, a similar program that had a manual on how to start the program. 

“Seniors need help to remain independent, and people live longer in their own homes,” Jubenville said. “But there was no one single organization stepping up to the plate, so we began to pull in community leaders for help.” 

There has been an increased emphasis on the public sector to provide services and options that will allow people to live in their own homes for as long as possible, said John Wren, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and management at the National Administration on Aging. 

“The fact that the area is starting something like this shows that they are in tune with national trends,” Wren said. 

Grassroots effort

The program currently is independently funded by private donations from the community — the largest donation was $25,000 from the Applewood Community in New Hartford. 

But Jubenville hopes to lobby for money from this year's New York State budget. 

“There is no state funding for something like this, but there is money in the budget for community based initiatives like ours,” Jubenville said. 

Bill Ferris, an AARP New York State lobbyist, was not familiar with the Sunset Neighborhood program, but he was familiar with the idea behind it. 

“AARP supports any effort that helps facilitate the concept of aging in place, which is essentially the ability of a person to age in dignity and in their own homes,” Ferris said. “It's what people want and it's far cheaper than someone going into a long-term care facility.” 

According to an AARP survey from 2007, 88 percent of New York residents age 50 or older said they would support increased funding for home- and community-based care. 

Aging in place keeps the quality of life up for as long as possible, said Michael Burgess, director of the New York State Office for the Aging. 

“There is almost $400,000 in the budget for community empowerment and aging in place. And Sunset Neighborhood could be eligible for some of that,” Burgess said. “It's a great kind of grassroots effort.” 

Room for growth

Sunset Neighborhood hopes to grow to about 300 members in the next 18 months, Smith said. 

“We'd like to open satellite offices after we reach that number,” Smith said. “But right now we want to focus on a small area, get the bugs out and move on from there.” 

The program also has received calls from other states, asking for help in setting up similar programs. 

“People live longer when they are in their own home, life is more enjoyable,” Smith said. “Aging in place is a growing concept across the U.S.”