Healthy Living: Making REAL Connections

The past several years have brought a lot of uncertainty for Upland resident Joan Guyon. With her husband’s passing and glaucoma taking the sight from one of her eyes, she found herself, for the first time in her life, inextricably stuck.

“I was frustrated like mad,” Ms. Guyon admitted. “All my life I’ve been an active, ‘in charge’ person who would jump in the car and go. And here I was, trapped.”

Her one source of stability, she says, was her home, where she has resided for the past 57 years, raising her 2 children and taking care of her husband after he suffered from a mini-stroke. But with her health failing and her inability to get anywhere, even that was starting to slip away until, by recommendation of her daughter, she found an option that would keep the cornerstones of her life in place.

Ms. Guyon is one of nearly 50 local seniors taking part in Claremont Senior Service’s REAL Connections Village to Village Network, part of a greater grassroots movement called the Village to Village Network and aimed at helping seniors remain in their homes as they grow older.

REAL Connections—REAL standing for Resources for Ageless Living—works by highlighting the strengths of each of its members and volunteers to find out ways they can help each other. A network of preferred professionals fills in where extra help is needed.

“If people want to age in place in their own homes, it takes a village to make that happen,” explained Brandi Orton, REAL Connections’ director of member services. “The village has really become a community of people supporting each other.”

The “village” model operates under the principle that every community member has something to contribute. It could be the ability to drive a fellow member to a doctor’s appointment or, for homebound seniors, the ability to make a phone call to another in need. Claremont resident Eve Tessier, 92 years old, is unable to drive, but is happy to share her enthusiasm with those in need. She has an open-door policy for fellow village members.

“If people are feeling sad, they come in here and start laughing,” Ms. Tessier shared with a cheery demeanor.

The “village” movement was started in 2001 by a group of Boston-area seniors looking for resources to allow them the ability to continue living in their homes.

“We wanted more freedom and control than we found in models that focused on single issues, such as housing, medical care or social activities. We wanted to be active, taking care of ourselves and each other rather than being ‘taken care of,’” the Beacon Hill village expresses on its website. “We, the members, decide what we need and want. We have an expert staff, a great variety of service providers, enthusiastic volunteers and strategic partners, but we govern the village, design its offerings and make it all happen.”

They now reach out to help others to do the same. To date, 89 village communities span the globe, with 123 in development. The REAL Connections village is thriving thanks to the help of Claremont Senior Services and a team of volunteers and members throughout the Inland Valley, to which the service caters. Each village operates with one employee and a network of volunteers. Ms. Orton keeps the operation functioning with the help of 58 fully vetted volunteers.

Though volunteers and members do help with daily tasks like driving each other to the grocery store or provide health care advocacy, it isn’t all routine duties. REAL Connections also hosts a series of social events for its members, from monthly potlucks and coffee klatches to regular poker nights, with a pinochle group to soon be added to the list.

“Our members tell us what they want and then create it,” Ms. Orton said. “A village is not just about meeting someone’s needs as far as getting them to the doctor’s or taking them to the grocery store. Yes, that’s part of it, but villages are more about building relationships.”

REAL Connections’ programming has provided Ms. Guyon, who is newly widowed and unable to drive, with the social opportunities she craves but has sorely missed in recent years.

“The big wide world is still out there, I discovered. And people, too. My goodness!” Ms. Guyon jested, but on a serious note she added that it has given her the chance to break free from her confinement to her home. “After being stuck in my house, this was just the answer to what I needed.”

The social outings and services provided by REAL Connections reach beyond its membership. The program has been a godsend for Brenda Schmit, who works at the colleges full-time while also assuming primary care of her mother, Mary Schmit.

Between rushing back-and-forth to her home, where her mother resides, to help with her needs and spending her weekends catching up on errands, the overload in responsibility began taking a toll.

“My mom is a real social butterfly and it was challenging for me to find enough things for her to do while I was away at work,” Ms. Schmit said.

“She felt a loss of freedom and I was limited in what I could to do help her.”

In September, Ms. Schmit met with Ms. Orton and signed her mother up with REAL Connections. Since then, Ms. Schmit says she has seen a vast improvement in her mother’s health as she returned to the busy social schedule that makes her happy.

“She’s probably more busy now than ever before,” Ms. Schmit laughed about her mother’s itinerary, which includes shopping on Mondays, volunteer work at a local hospital on Tuesdays and learning about social media with a REAL Connections intern on Thursdays.

“It gives her something to look forward to and I don’t have to worry about her when I’m at work,” Ms. Schmit said, appreciative of all the help.

“It’s like I have 2 or 3 new sisters,” she says of the volunteers. “They have definitely become a part of the family.”

Above all the things that REAL Connections provides—the ability to live in home longer, a source of dedicated providers with discounted rates and a one-call stop for all members’ needs—it is this relationship-building aspect that hits home most for Ms. Orton.

“The village really goes back to the way we used to live, where we knew our neighbors and we relied upon each other for help,” Ms. Orton said. “The relationships are the most meaningful part.”

You do not have to be a Claremont resident to be a part of REAL Connections. Members and volunteers span Alta Loma, Claremont, La Verne, Pomona, San Antonio Heights, Rancho Cucamonga, San Dimas and Upland. To become a part of the REAL Connections team, either as a member or volunteer, contact Ms. Orton at 621-6300 or by email to Membership is $54.50 a month and includes all services, except for contracted work through one of the nonprofit’s preferred providers. Becoming a volunteer is free.

—Beth Hartnett


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