Home for Good

Trinidad's grassroots plan to care for its own



In her one-story Trinidad home overlooking the Pacific, 61-year-old Pat Morales leaves her bedroom door open at night. That way she can hear when her elderly mother wakes up and starts her odd, late-night routines down the hall - rearranging the closet, shuffling tax forms from the 1970s, packing suitcases. When her mother's acting like this there's no coaxing her back to bed, so Morales just listens and prays she doesn't fall down.

"You lie in bed and you're waiting for a thud," Morales said one recent afternoon, looking toward her 92-year-old mother, Dorothy Burroughs, who dozed upright on the living room couch. "When you're caring for somebody you don't get any sleep. It's a maternal thing. It's like having a little baby."

A hip-shattering fall is what brought her mother to Trinidad from Livermore in 2005. Morales' older sisters suggested they send their mother to a nursing home, but Morales didn't think it was necessary yet. She didn't realize, however, what a difficult task caring for her mother alone would be. Nor did she realize she would have to quit her job - paying a daytime caretaker cost more than her salary - or that she would have to resign from the Trinidad City Council. (A Times-Standardarticle from June 2005 cites "stress" as Morales' reason for stepping down.) And she never would have guessed that she wouldn't be able to leave her mother alone, not for a minute, not even to run up the road for a carton of eggs.

To say the least, the life of a round-the-clock caregiver is a challenge, and, unlike caring for a baby, it only gets harder with time. It can be isolating, financially burdensome, physically demanding and depressing in the clinical sense of the word. Last year Morales' doctor gave her a prescription for an anti-depressant, Lexapro. But she soon stopped taking it because it made her feel "like a robot." "I didn't cry, I didn't laugh," she said.

Her situation is not unique. In fact, Morales closely mirrors the statistical profile of an average caregiver in America. Results from a study published in January's Archives of Internal Medicinereported that 75.1 percent of end-of-life caregivers were female, with an average age of 64. And according to statistics from the United States Administration on Aging (AoA) one-third of all caregivers employed while caregiving gave up work either temporarily or permanently. National studies also show that depression is twice as likely among caregivers as non-caregivers.

Morales, a slim, garrulous Alameda County native who tends to talk with her hands, chalks up her ability to care for her mother this long - two years - in part, to the help she's gotten from her friends and neighbors in Trinidad. Sometimes the help she receives might be as simple as having someone, like her neighbor Mary Wilbur, sit with her mom while she runs to the pharmacy in McKinleyville. Or it could be more serious, like the time she phoned her friend Donna Lin after her mother fell.

"I called the ambulance," Morales said. "And, right after, I called Donna Lin. She got here before the ambulance. There wasn't much she could do, but it was a comfort."

Lin has been sort of a resident angel to seniors in Trinidad for years now, and it's clear that Morales views her civic-minded friend with a certain amount of hero worship. She talks admiringly about Lin's sense of humor, and how she'll listen to Dorothy Burroughs' gibberish and make conversation and laugh as if it all made perfect sense. And Morales will never forget the time when that bad storm knocked out the power and Lin drove around at 9:30 at night and brought lanterns to all the elderly folks in Trinidad.

Last month Lin, 52, and a handful of baby boomer-aged volunteers organized their efforts to help seniors and disabled people in and around Trinidad live in their own home as long as possible.

They're calling the group the Trinidad Village Keepers.

National experts on aging have their eye on similar groups that have sprung up around the country, and they're saying these neighborhood clans are the wave of the future for elder care.

The idea first came aboutlast year when Susan Beresford, a part-time Trinidad resident and president of the Ford Foundation, mailed Donna Lin a New York Times article about a group of Boston seniors who formed a group to look after their own, so to speak. The goal was to forgo assisted living centers and nursing homes and continue living in their own upscale urban neighborhood with help that would come to their door when they needed it.

Beresford thought an organization like Beacon Hill Village would be well-suited to tiny Trinidad (pop. 311), where the median age is 50 - older than every other city in Humboldt County by 10 to 25 years.

"There seems to be a need [for elder care] in Trinidad," Lin said. "So we said, `This [program] sounds right for Trinidad. Let's have a place where we can meet their needs better.'"

So the Village Keepers got busy finding some funding. Recently they won a $2,500 grant from the Trinidad Trust Fund to buy tablecloths, lamps and other supplies for their weekly social activities. And now the group is under the umbrella of Trinidad's Health and Human Services commission so it has a little more credibility with other agencies, which could eventually bring them more money. Kathy Bhardwaj, a City Council member, has taken over the Village Keepers' official commissionership.

Bhardwaj, 59, was drawn to the program because, like Morales, she's a caregiver for her mother and knows first-hand what a difference a little help from your neighbors can make.

"I live with my mom and have watched her aging process and she needs someone around," she said. "You get to the point where you can't live alone safely. And what do you do? Assisted Living? I know I don't want to do that. I want to live here. First of all [an assisted living facility] is not Trinidad. Secondly, you're better off in familiar surroundings.

"I look at what my mom's going through," she continued, "and wonder what will happen to me when I'm her age and don't have any family. And it's not just me. The whole community is aging."

The problem Donna Lin has noticed since moving to the North Coast from Massachusetts in 1997 is that county services for seniors don't always extend to the seaside hamlet. For instance, Dial-a-Ride, the taxi and wheelchair van service for seniors and disabled people, only goes as far north as McKinleyville. On top of that, finding caregivers to come to Trinidad can be difficult. The 23-mile trek to Trinidad from Eureka, the county's population hub, for just two or three hours work simply isn't feasible for most workers.

To Lin, Trinidad's general isolation from services, coupled with an aging demographic, added up to a troubling trend, one that could possibly result in a premature exodus to nursing homes for seniors who couldn't get the help they needed.

So last summer, Lin and the other Village Keepers board members - Kathy Bhardwaj, Marilyn Sterling, Laraine Cook, Darlene Marlow and Alice Foster - decided to pool resources and buy the $500 Beacon Hill Village business manual, which they have adapted to better fit the needs of Trinidad.

And while the Beacon Hill Village prototype has given the group a road map, they've also sought out advice from sources closer to home, among them the Area 1 Agency on Aging in Eureka, which provides assistance for caregivers, counseling on health insurance and Medicare and information about services for seniors.

Area 1 Agency on Aging's Director Marianne Nix worked with the group to craft confidentiality agreements for volunteers who might overhear private matters in a senior's home, and advised them on liability issues. Nix said she's impressed with the Trinidad group's initiative to help its aging population and will continue to aid it however she can so the Village Keepers stays around for the long run. "When a group gets together in a community and says, `Hey, we have our homes here, and we're not going to rely on the social and medical services to come to us, we're going to provide services ourselves or provide transportation to go to them' - that's just grassroots."

The Village Keepersprogram works like this: Volunteers (or "angels") sign up to offer services they're capable of doing - everything from dog-walking or playing a card game to going out for lunch or helping someone deal with their health insurance company. Then seniors make a list of all the things they could use help with. Lin or another board member puts all the information in a database and when there's a match, she pairs people up.

And a point the group stresses on its information brochure, which was sent out last month to 300 people in the greater Trinidad area, is that everyonehas skills and everyonehas needs.

A second element to the Village Keepers' program is the "Hello Buddy" phone list, wherein two people are matched up to call each other every day just to check in. The thinking is that if someone doesn't answer their phone it might mean they need help. If it happens that a phone buddy doesn't pick up after a couple attempts to get in touch, an "angel," probably Lin or another board member, would drive out to their home to see what's going on.

The phone list idea was initiated by Darlene Marlow, a longtime elder rights activist and wife of Trinidad City Council member Terry Marlow.

"Many people have a horror of being dead and having their dog eat them," she said, though she seemed to instantly regret mentioning it as she watched a reporter begin scribbling in a notebook. "It is a fear if you're old, sick or frail and you can't get to the phone."

The third component, and what members see as the most important aspect to ensuring the Village Keepers' success, are weekly social activities every Wednesday afternoon at the Trinidad City Hall.

"I think seniors, if they live alone, tend to become isolated," said Lin. "So we were thinking the socializing aspect was important -- come out and play cards; get together for lunches; come out and hear the programs we have; get to know each other. I think the needs of being a senior are not always what you think. It's not all about health. It's mostly about being alone. We are picking programs that are fun and interesting, and not just [having] laborious discussions about health and taking care of your heart."

At their kick-off event on Jan. 17, 80 people came for an exotic bird show, and similar-sized crowds came for the next two events: On Jan. 24 Tom Collins from the Area Agency on Aging discussed county services available to seniors, and on Jan. 31 Trinidad historian Ned Simmons talked about -- what else -- the history of Trinidad.

But the scenewas entirely different on Feb. 7, and the crowd was thin at the cavernous wood-paneled City Hall. Some blamed the weather. It was the first significant rainfall the coast had experienced in weeks. "It bothers old people's bones," one attendee said. Others figured people just weren't as interested in the social activity planned for the day - making Valentine's cards.

A dozen or so people, mostly senior-aged women, came and went during the two-hour program. A few actually sat down and cut red hearts from construction paper and others just chatted with their neighbors or waited in line to have their back rubbed by a 30-something masseuse. One gray-haired woman announced that she would be willing to teach anybody pinochle, and a game started up soon after.

Mayor Chi-Wei Lin, Donna Lin's husband, came mid-way through the program and sat by the window. Sipping on a cup of apple juice, he talked about the city's recent acquisition of $70,000 to build a new park north of the Chevron Station, designed especially for seniors, with a bocce court, a gazebo and a walking path. And to make it even more senior-friendly, the path will be made of recycled rubber, so it will be easy on the joints. The synthetic material came from a separate grant worth $13,000, written by Chi-Wei. He pulled the acceptance letter out of a manila folder and pointed to the word "congratulations."

Darlene Marlow, 58, joined the conversation and talked about some of the issues facing Trinidad. She remembered how one elderly woman with Alzheimer's, who recently died, drove 300 miles to the Bay Area and had no idea how she arrived there. With no family to help her, the Trinidad Police Chief had to go down there and bring her back home.

That might have never happened if the Village Keepers were checking up on her, and Marlow is optimistic that nothing like that will happen to anyone else. Already the program is making a difference, she said. Like for one man, who was set up with a free motorized wheelchair that was donated to the Village Keepers. Or for Carol Klune, a 74-year-old Westhaven resident who has bad night vision because of a condition called macular degeneration. Marlow hooked her up with a ride to her foreign policy night class at Humboldt State University for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

To pay the favor forward, Klune - who was at City Hall for the pre-Valentine's program - said she's volunteered for whatever she can do during the day "like picking up a grocery list" and she has also been paired up on the Hello Buddy phone list with a man who's also sight-impaired.

"I don't necessarily need a caregiver," she said, "but if this [Village Keepers] hadn't started I couldn't have gotten a ride. You don't just call a neighbor, especially when you're out there on 10 or 20 acres."

Toward the end of Wednesday's afternoon program, Pat Morales and her mother, Dorothy Burroughs, stopped in, but they didn't stay too long and they didn't do too much. Morales said hi to people she knew and sat close to her mother the whole time, who was sleeping upright in her chair.

Earlier that day,while her mother slowly ate herlunch - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an Ensure protein drink and Sunchips - Morales vacillated about whether she should go to the City Hall program or not. It would be good to get out of the house, but she knew deep down that her mother was beyond the point of enjoying anything much and would probably just be confused by it all.

Even though the Village Keepers have done a lot to make Dorothy Burroughs' and Morales' lives a little easier, a little less painful, it's not going to be enough. It's a reality that Morales faced this month when she made the call she'd been dreading for so long, and put her mother on a waiting list at Grenada Healthcare And Rehabilitation Center in Eureka.

It could be anywhere from a day to a month, says Morales, when her mother will move away forever. She chose the nursing home she liked best, the one with the sunniest rooms, and the happiest faces. But it's little solace now.

"It's a hard decision to make," she said. "I know she will pass away there, so it's hard. I would love to have her at home but it's impossible. I'm getting old too."

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