LeadingAge Magazine · January/February 2012 • Volume 02 • Number 01

Meeting Needs, Building Trust

January 17, 2012 | by Dianne Molvig

Aging-services providers build their reputations by directly offering useful, high-quality and ethical services. But some smart providers go a step beyond, setting up relationships with other organizations or creating networks of local service vendors of all kinds and helping clients navigate a wide variety of life challenges.

Among the challenges older adults face, one of the most frustrating is finding the right help at the right time. This is especially true for those who wish to remain in their own homes as they grow older.

Some providers have created innovative programs offering solutions to this dilemma. As the examples described below illustrate, the resulting benefits flow in two directions. Older adults get the reliable help and information they need. And organizations bolster their reputations for being trusted resources in their communities.

  Just as drivers use navigational tools to guide them to their destinations, “we want to be the OnStar of senior services, helping people who are desperate for direction,” says Lynn Zuellig, chief operating officer for home and community-based services at Lutheran Homes of Michigan (LHM). Such was LHM’s rationale for launching the Aging Enriched Network in 2009.

The network’s roots go back a couple of years before that. LHM’s decision-makers began searching for ways to better support caregivers of older adults—especially family members who had become informal caregivers.

“They are members of our community who often are overburdened,” says LHM President and CEO David Gehm. “They’re trying to manage jobs. They’ve dropped out of civic activities such as Rotary or church because they’re consumed by caregiving. Many develop their own chronic illnesses due to stress. They’re the silent sufferers out there.”

The Aging Enriched network is a hub that connects older adults and their caregivers with the services they need. “We help them find anything and everything that could help to keep Mom or Dad independent, or at least safe at home,” Gehm says.

Providing those services are the business affiliates that have joined the network, all vetted by Zuellig and her staff. These include a diverse mix: plumbers, housekeepers, respite care providers, financial planners, transportation services and many others.

  After a family has received services, the network makes a follow-up call. “We have individuals in our call centers that we call smilers,” Zuellig explains, “not receptionists, because we want them to smile on the phone as they work with people.” The smilers both take service requests and call back to check if services were satisfactory. “The business affiliates know we’re going to monitor the quality of their work,” Zuellig says. “They agree to that when they sign on.”

Currently the network operates in six counties in central Michigan, encompassing urban, suburban and rural areas. The goal is to become statewide. The latest step toward deeper community outreach involves setting up Adult Enriched Resource Centers in churches in various communities.

Older adults and caregivers pay nothing to join the Aging Enriched network. “To me, this is the essence of why nonprofits work in communities,” Gehm says. “We do things others don’t do because there’s no immediate margin to it. This is a gift back to our communities and to the family caregivers, in particular.”

Such actions also reap rewards for LHM, sometimes even financial ones. For instance, city officials granted tax-exempt status to LHM’s new home health care office building—an exemption that stemmed largely from the Aging Enriched network’s help in the community, Gehm explains. The tax dollars saved go far in paying the network’s costs.

The program also builds on the trust LHM has already established in its 120-year history. “It extends that trust in new ways,” Gehm says. “It’s reshaping our brand in the community as being ‘those folks who now do that, too’ on top of everything else we do.”

  Colorado expects a 76 percent increase in its 60-plus population by 2020. The mission of Seniors' Resource Center (SRC) is to meet older Coloradans’ needs as they continue to live at home. Created in 1978 to serve a 10-county area around Denver, SRC operates no housing facilities and is solely a home- and community-based services provider.

To help older adults through the maze of community services available to them, “SRC is a one-stop shop where older individuals and family members can come for information or get access to direct services,” says John Zabawa, president and CEO. “We’ve proven we’re the go-to organization. And in doing that, we’ve built community trust.”

SRC served 19,000 individuals last year and prevented 1,100 from being placed in institutions, for a savings to the state of more than $8 million, Zabawa reports. SRC’s funding comes from a mix of government allocations, foundation contributions, private donations and fees for service.

Services fall into seven core areas: transportation, adult day and respite care, in-home care, mental health outreach, job training, volunteer opportunities and care management.

The job-training component, for instance, helps age 55-plus adults who are income-eligible learn new employment skills, at no cost to them, after which participants work part-time in not-for-profit or government agencies.

One of the volunteer opportunities SRC offers to older adults is CATCH Healthy Habits, an intergenerational program operated in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of metro Denver, that engages older adults in teaching students in grades K-5 about nutrition and fitness.

The mental health outreach component is called Senior Reach, a partnership with two community mental health centers. To date, SRC has trained 4,000 gatekeepers, such as grocery clerks, mail carriers, bank tellers, utility workers and others. These trained gatekeepers “are the eyes and ears in the community,” Zabawa says, as they interact with older adults they see regularly. Gatekeepers learn to identify trouble signs, such as emotional or physical changes, and report their concerns to SRC, which then follows up to discuss possible service needs with the older adult.

SRC has 300 employees and 1,400 volunteers to provide its wide array of services. For any services SRC can’t provide, it gives referrals to other not-for-profit agencies or to local businesses, such as home repair contractors, that SRC has vetted.

The large corps of volunteers extends SRC’s service capabilities even further. For instance, an 85-year-old man requested transportation to piano lessons, which an SRC staff driver can’t provide because of various funding sources’ limits on trip purposes. “But one of our volunteers can do that,” Zabawa says. “And who’s to say what determines quality of life? Is it going to a meal site, or is it doing something you’ve always wanted to do, like taking piano lessons?”

  Carleton-Willard Village, dating back to 1884, is the oldest CCRC in Massachusetts, while its sister organization, Carleton-Willard At Home, was launched in 2009. While they have vastly different tenures, each entity enhances the stature of the other in the community, says Paula von Kleydorff, program director of At Home.

“Carleton-Willard has a strong reputation, so people know its At Home program will be top drawer,” she says. “And we help Carleton-Willard Village by being out in the community constantly.”

At Home is modeled on the village concept and serves six suburban communities outside Boston. Adults age 65-plus who live in their own homes pay to become members of At Home at a rate of $600 a year for single-person households, $850 for couples. Currently there are 170 members ranging in age from 67 to 97, with 80 being the average.

  At Home provides its own transportation services to members and launched a new meals delivery program in December 2011. Participating At Home members get the same meals served to residents at Carleton-Willard Village.

For all other services, At Home steers members to other community resources that go through prescreening and agree to offer At Home members a discount on services. These include home repairs, house cleaning, in-home computer assistance and much more.

“We basically find anything members need,” von Kleydorff says. “I like to tell people who are thinking of joining that I’m the daughter you can make a pest of yourself with. You can call me up and ask for anything.”

And that’s precisely what members do. One woman, for instance, had plans to go to France for an 80th birthday party, but her French was rusty. At Home found her someone to converse with to brush up her skills. Another member gets someone to clean his chicken coop twice a year.

Some members rely on At Home solely for emergency assistance, such as dealing with the ice dams and roof damage left by last winter’s severe snowstorms. “Then we have other members we help almost every day,” von Kleydorff says. “There’s a broad spectrum of needs and wants among our 170 members.”

Besides access to needed services, membership allows participation in At Home-sponsored classes, exercise groups, social/cultural activities and volunteer opportunities. Members also get invitations to some events at Carleton-Willard Village. In fact, von Kleydorff notes, some members join At Home with the goal of someday moving into the CCRC. “Others are fiercely independent,” she says, “and never intend to live anywhere but home.”

A program such as At Home is not an income generator, von Kleydorff points out. “It’s a great way to be part of your community,” she says. “You have to have a commitment to community outreach. That’s the reason for doing this.”