By Suzanne Bohan
When Bob and Lynn Forthman joined Ashby Village in July 2010, they never figured they'd need its services so soon.
The virtual "village" in Berkeley is one of 65 nationwide, with 120 more in the works. The volunteer-driven networks are meant to help seniors continue living in their homes by delivering a multitude of services they no longer can do for themselves and to help them stay engaged through social events.
What started with the first village in 2001 in Boston has become a fast-growing phenomenon that could fill a critical gap as baby boomers age and longevity increases. By 2050, demographers project that one in five Americans will be 65 or older, part of a "silver tsunami."
"I think this is going to be the way of the future," said Berdeen Coven, a psychologist leading the drive to launch the Silicon Valley Village, expected to open by June. "There just aren't going to be enough private facilities for people to age in, and we have to get together and help each other out as we live longer."
Members pay yearly dues, ranging from $35 to more than $900, with half offering discounted rates, according to a nationwide survey by UC Berkeley researchers.
In exchange, members are a phone call away from such free services as driving, gardening, computer help, home repairs, shopping and other day-to-day needs.
Village volunteers also help members sell homes that have become too large and move to smaller dwellings.screened list of vendors such as plumbers and electricians offer discounted rates.
A month after the Forthmans joined, a driver ran a red light in West Berkeley, smashing into Lynn Forthman as she drove to her haircut appointment. The driver fled and was never caught, but the 86-year-old woman had five shattered ribs.
"I called Ashby Village and asked 'Could you people be of any help?' " Bob Forthman said. "They said 'Of course we could.' "
A geriatric social worker from Ashby Village warned Bob Forthman against transferring his wife from the hospital to a nursing home with a poor reputation and helped him resist pressure to release her until she was transferred to a better facility.
After Lynn Forthman returned home, she received discounted in-home care from an organization referred by Ashby Village.
"It's kind of like an insurance policy," said Bob Forthman, who retired as a professor in 1996 from what's now called Cal State East Bay. "They were there when I needed them."
But his wife of 60 years didn't survive the accident; she died several weeks later. Forthman, 86, said he wasn't sure he could cope. "I was simply not functioning very well. I honestly thought I might have to be hospitalized."
Three village volunteers visited him the day she died, bringing coffee, croissants, hugs and sympathetic ears. "For someone going through that experience, listening is what they want," he said.
Another volunteer who has since become a good friend helped Forthman write and publish a newspaper obituary and led the arrangements for Lynn Forthman's memorial service, including finding a rabbi.
Others helped hire vendors to prepare his large Berkeley hills home for sale and to find a condominium in an adults-only community in Berkeley.
He now joins the numerous social events the village organizes, from hikes and potlucks to book groups and seminars.
Most villages have one or two full-time staff members and a cadre of volunteers from fellow members to high school students.
Ashby Village launched in 2010 with $80,000 in dues and donations from charter members and now has 170 members. It hopes to double that number, said Andy Gaines, executive director. Ninety-five percent of its members renewed this year, paying $750 individually or $1,200 per household.
The villages serve a population falling between a wide gap in care for aging Americans. Medicaid covers nursing homes and some in-home care for the poorest, and the wealthy can afford costly assisted-living facilities or hired help. "But for people who are middle-class or upper middle-class, there was a hole," Gaines said.
A UC Berkeley researcher is heading a three-year evaluation, funded by the Archstone Foundation, to determine the qualities most likely to ensure the long-term viability of the nonprofit villages.
"It's too early to draw any conclusions, except that villages seem to be doing pretty well," said Andrew Scharlach, director of UC Berkeley's Center for Advanced Study of Aging Services. The numbers of villages nationwide are "growing exponentially," he said.
Only a few have failed, Scharlach said, and that was due to either lack of capital or lack of leadership and paid staff.
Coven, with the Silicon Valley Village, said about 20 volunteers are working to launch it once they secure enough startup funding, expected mostly from individuals.
"Our goal is $100,000 so we won't ever have to close our doors," Coven said.
They will charge $800 annually per person, or $950 per household. They plan to start small, serving Los Gatos, Saratoga, Monte Sereno and parts of Campbell and add 100 members yearly until they're serving most of Santa Clara County.
Does anything similar serve older adults?
"There is nothing, there is nothing," Coven said.