New nonprofit uses ‘it takes a village’ concept to help seniors

Village of Sonoma Valley will draw on community support to assist the aging.|

What began as a challenging effort to help his wife, Jeanette, have a quality life despite her dementia has ultimately led Sonoma Valley resident Whitney Evans to help establish a new nonprofit organization that addresses the major needs of the aging by employing a village model that draws on community support.

The Village of Sonoma Valley (VSV) was created in January as a curator and coordinator of neighborhoods and community resource organizations, aimed at improving the quality of life at all stages of aging. It is based on six initiatives, reflecting the major needs of seniors: transportation, food assistance, household help, dementia family support, caregiver resources and socialization. The organization has already done a soft launch of its Village Resource Navigator service, which helps people find resources to obtain these services.

The new organization consists mainly of volunteers and is a successor to CarePartners Initiative, which will become one of VSV’s programs. Evans, a dedicated volunteer and philanthropist, founded the Sonoma-based nonprofit CarePartners Initiative in 2019 after discovering that few families whose loved ones have dementia knew how to access the counseling and support that is available or can be developed in a community. The initiative served as an educational forum for caregivers.

“When my research verified that there are 1,000 individuals just in Sonoma Valley in one of the four stages of dementia, based on one in 10 age 65-plus and one in three age 85-plus, I knew I must take action,” Evans said. “Our first support program was an educational forum for caregivers. With support from Vintage House and the health care community, 84 caregivers attended. I was at the door collecting the evaluation forms at the conclusion, and many caregivers had tears in their eyes when expressing how grateful they were that the community cared and wanted to help.”

When COVID-19 magnified the challenges facing seniors, last year CarePartners was approved for two grants from the Community Foundation Sonoma County to determine how the county can best meet their needs. CarePartners leadership had taken a close look at Village Movement of California after its efforts to help more older adults access social care were mentioned in the 2021 California Master Plan for Aging, a 10-year plan with more than $5 billion proposed for budgeting. The master plan has five goals: housing for all stages and ages; health re-imagined; inclusion and equity, not isolation; caregiving that works; and affording aging.

“We couldn’t find anything about how the plan was being implemented in Sonoma County, so we applied for a grant from the Community Foundation Sonoma County to host a series of meetings to discuss implementation in the county,” said Sonoma resident Erick Larson, executive director of VSV and regional director of operations at Hired Hands Homecare, Inc., which serves Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties.

Representatives from Area Agency on Aging, Council on Aging, Alzheimer’s Association, Share Sonoma County, Care Partners Initiative and other organizations attended the meetings. The group decided it would be best to focus on Caregiving that Works, the fourth goal of the plan. While reading through the plan, the group discovered an objective in the third goal that states, “promote and adapt the village model of volunteerism and services to reflect the strengths of California’s diverse communities.”

“The request is for expansion of the village movement across California,” said Larson, who formerly served as executive director of two independent living senior communities, Bay Park in Pinole and Vineyard Commons in Santa Rosa. “Key to this effort is evolving a more flexible village model to meet the needs of different communities and fostering greater engagement of villages with other senior-serving organizations in the community.”

These words prompted CarePartners to create VSV. The CarePartners Initiative will continue to increase awareness and support for Sonoma Valley families living with memory loss and other symptoms of cognitive decline and enable caregivers to better care for themselves and their loved ones.

“Since one of those needs is support of families with dementia, CarePartners merged into Village of Sonoma Valley, and the village’s Community Resource Navigator is a key referral source. It was a win, win!,” Evans said. “A successful, impactful Village of Sonoma Valley will be the most significant accomplishment of my life. It’s that important.”

A 2009 survey by the AARP, “Aging in Place,” found that nearly 90% of people over age 65 in the United States want to stay in their homes and communities as they age. The village model helps them age in a place of their own choosing and remain connected to their communities with the support and tools they need to successfully age by their own design. Village members often feel less isolated, more independent and have an enhanced purpose in life.

“Culturally, we are not prepared for aging,” Larson said. “While some have been successful with financial planning for their retirement years, growing numbers of seniors find themselves unable to afford the skyrocketing costs of senior housing and care. There are government programs in place. Medicare covers costs for acute care, but not all long-term expenses. In Home Support Services is available for the very poor—about 3% qualify—but here is very little to no support for the middle class. This is the ‘forgotten middle.’

“We cannot rely entirely on government to pick up the tab for these people. It simply will not happen. This is where the village model of neighbors helping neighbors can fill the gaps in our care system. Simple acts like giving a ride to the doctor, checking in with a neighbor and preparing a meal for a friend returning home from a hospital stay can help seniors remain secure in their home.”

VSV is a part of both Village Movement California, for which Larson serves as a board member, as well as the national Village to Village Network. Both VSV and Village Movement California are dedicated to expanding outreach and services to all communities with multilingual, multicultural initiatives, programs and community organizing.

The village model is particularly relevant to Sonoma, where 21% of the population is over 65 and more services, such as five-day adult day care, are needed so family caregivers can continue working.

This model has flourished in Petaluma, whose in launched the first 2014 Village Network in Sonoma County, with a goal “to build a vibrant culture of giving and receiving—redefining aging on our own terms, in our own homes and engaged with our community.”

Village Network of Petaluma, consisting of 150 members and 111 volunteers, serves the Petaluma and Penngrove communities.

“The village concept is an incredible tool designed specifically to address the psychosocial needs of a sophisticated, independent and aging population,” said Cynthia Gregory, executive director of Village Network of Petaluma. “It is generally accepted that one of the greatest threats to well-being of older adults is social isolation. Social connectivity is one of the primary benefits that the village model offers. In Petaluma, we offer more than 50 programs each month that meet a wide variety of needs, including arts, culture, environment, physical activity and wellness, meditation and yoga.”

She said that one of the organization’s main values is inclusiveness.

“We not only provide a thriving community for our core members, but also offer several levels of memberships, including scholarships for those who cannot pay their membership dues,” Gregory said.

Larson said that Village Network of Petaluma is a well-established, successful village and a model for village startups.

“We collaborate with them and our intention is to continue to seek opportunities to build a stronger network,” he said. “Each village is encouraged to develop its organization based on the specific needs of the community, so the goals and services may vary from one to another. In this way, villages are truly community based.”

Gregory said that it makes sense to have positive and supportive relationships with other local villages.

“We expect to share best practices and innovations in the village model with Sonoma, Sebastopol and others as we grow, partner when it makes sense and govern our individual and collective models to deliver the best possible impact,” she said. “In that way, everyone wins.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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