One thing Dick and Vicky Bergman have learned through an organization they helped to create, Community Without Walls (CWW), is that aging is a continuum.
The aging process, according to geriatric social worker and CWW cofounder Harriet Bogdonoff, runs from “go-go,” through “slow-go,” to “no-go,” and CWW has dedicated its 20 years to creating structures that help people remain in their own homes and communities — and on the go — as long as possible.
The Bergmans, who live and work in Princeton, had started thinking about their own aging process when Dick’s mother seemed unable to assert and maintain her independence after his father’s slow deterioration and death from Parkinson’s. So in 1992, when they heard about a “creative aging” conference in New York sponsored by the Omega Institute in New York, they decided to go. A happenstance meeting with Bogdanoff proved to be the genesis of a series of meetings that morphed into Community Without Walls.
Back when Dick’s father died, the “standard” pattern of aging was much different than it is today — people got old, declined, and went into nursing homes and died. Or they might have entered a retirement facility, or perhaps moved in with children.
But usually not much changed unless there was a crisis. Without the kind of preplanning that an organization like CWW encourages, the wheels start turning with a call from an adult child to a doctor, nurse, or social service agency — “Oh my gosh, my dad just fell down; what do I do now?”
But the Bergmans and Bogdanoff were looking for something different — a continuation of their present lives, with some extra help when they needed it, and planning for the future. Although the Omega conference focused on all the necessary pieces — housing and transportation needs; appropriate physical, mental, and emotional care; and spiritual connections and community involvement — the three Princetonians agreed that it had not adequately addressed what might be done differently to address the interrelated and complex issues of growing older in America.
Back in Princeton they continued the conversation, joined by Roz Denard, who was then caring for her aging mother. Following the lead of Bogdanoff that the overwhelming need of aging adults, wherever they are in the aging process, is for better social connections and support, they decided to expand their conversation to friends who might also be interested in exploring a “better” way to age in their homes and their community.
Denard wrote what came to be known as the “falling leaves letter,” an invitation to coffee and conversation sent to about 80 of their friends. The letter started by noting that “with the start of the fall season many people think of a year coming to an end, and as we get older, there is frequently a bit of unease along with the falling leaves.” It went on to ask in part: “What lies ahead? Will I be well enough to live as I do now, and, if so, for how long? Will I be able to stay in my own home?”
To their pleasant surprise, the Bergmans’ house was filled almost beyond capacity with 60 people who animatedly discussed and questioned how they wanted to age, how best to provide support for aging relatives, what support they might want or expect from their children, what resources existed, and how aging was perceived in the community.
That was the beginning of Community Without Walls, which set out to change the paradigm of aging. “Until people got to the really declining stage — in go-go and slo-go — they could stay in their own homes, and most people wanted to do that. What they needed to do that was social support,” says Dick.
And with CWW, and another organization it spawned, Secure @Home, which coordinates services people need to maintain their lifestyles, more seniors in central New Jersey are able to stay where they are. CWW is structured into six, going on seven, “houses” with total membership of about 440.
Each house is unique and typically plans monthly learning and social activities for all its members. The houses have smaller interest groups that help people bond and do things they enjoy together — from ethnic dining to movie going, poetry to memoir writing, walking and gardening to opera, books to day trips, potluck suppers to volunteering and end of life planning.
House members also support each other with driving, technology, and help during illnesses, and members of several houses joined to create a theatrical group, CWW On Stage, to document and dramatize aspects of the lives of people 65 years or older (U.S. 1, May 11, 2011).
Much has changed since CWW was started in 1992, though many of the concerns and issues remain the same. Early members are all 20 years older and while younger and newer members — and some octo and nonagenarians — are still go-gos, many members who were in the vanguard are moving into the slow-go and no-go phases.
Now CWW wants to make extra sure that in the event of a health crisis when family members are far away, people will be available to visit, to contact family members, and to coordinate social visits and offers of food and other help if necessary.
On Friday and Saturday, October 5 and 6, Community Without Walls is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a conference titled “Getting Older Then and Now,” to which it invites the entire community. The conference is fully booked, but for information visit www.princetoncww.org.
Thinking about what CWW has meant in their own lives over the past 20 years, Dick and Vicky Bergman say that beyond the obvious social benefits and knowledge about aging, they are always updating themselves on what their options are and what resources are available. “You have to have options because you don’t know what hands you are going to get dealt,” says Dick.
Regarding housing, for example, all manner of options are available, with the foremost one being remaining at home. The Bergmans are lucky in this regard because the house they moved into in 1974 is a ranch, but several people they know have added ground floor bathroom-bedroom suites to transform homes that might otherwise not be navigable.
Companies have also sprung up to provide help with the activities of daily living, like shopping, cooking, and house cleaning — the kind of support people need to stay in their homes.
The feasibility of staying at home is of course affected by more than the desire to remain independent. Dick suggests, for example, that two people can do it for longer than a person living alone, although it also depends on how functional both are.
Economics is also critical. “If you have the resources to be able to hire the resources you need to stay at home,” says Dick,” you can do that. “If you don’t, you have to look elsewhere, to income-measured, age-restricted housing.”
In the past 20 years more continuing care communities have also sprung up. Dick recalls, “When my mother was older and declining, places like Stonebridge and Windrows did not exist in this area.” With the exception of Meadow Lakes in Hightstown, most of the continuing care communities were in Pennsylvania.
Some people the Bergmans know have decided to move to places like Stonebridge and Windrows because their children live far away and they want to set in place where they will spend the rest of their lives. Now in their 80s, CWW cofounder Denard lives in Stonebridge, and Bogdanoff moved to Portland, Maine, to be near one of her daughters.
Another change in recent years is that older people seem to be less interested in moving to an age-restricted community. “We like to be in a community with a broad spectrum of ages,” says Dick.
He envisions apartment developments that mimic what happens in apartment buildings in large cities where people of all ages live together. “I’m sure there are a lot of younger people who would like to live in a community with health care service on site, like a nurse 24-7, a gym or a spa, and a convenience store,” he says. “It’s not just older people looking for easy access to those kinds of things; increasingly younger people who have very busy lives are also interested.”
For those who are interested in market rate, age-restricted housing, Princeton architect Robert Hillier is developing the environmentally friendly Copperwood on a 21-acre lot on Bunn Drive. Previously the only age-restricted housing in Princeton was low income — for example, Elm Court and Spruce Circle.
Another change is that although some people are still moving south, there seems to be a growing trend of people returning to their home communities.
As a result of CWW, people are also focusing more on end-of-life issues, including quality of life and the costs and benefits of expensive treatments. “It used to be, you got sick, and you died; now you get something, have treatment, and maybe you have good quality of life, and maybe you don’t, but at some point we’re all going to die,” says Dick.
As people are taking longer to die, they want options and the result has been an increasing interest in developing palliative and hospice care, but also in looking at the goals of care at the end of life.
David Barile, a Princeton geriatric physician, works with people at the end of life and with serious illnesses and explores with them the question of how they want to spend their remaining time.
For the Bergmans, their involvement in CWW has not brought Dick’s children into their personal planning, simply because they live too far away. His daughter Deborah Bergman is a writer in Portland and his daughter Susan Bergman Hackett lives in Richmond with her husband.
However, they are aware of what the Bergmans have been doing — that they both have completed living wills and medical powers of attorney and have plastic packages with a magnet on the back on their refrigerator that contain emergency health information.
“The first aid squad knows to go to the refrigerator to see if these cards are there,” says Vicky. The cards are available from the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, or the Senior Resource Center.
Dick was born in Brooklyn, then moved to Yeadon, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father was trained as a mechanical engineer and started a business designing ornamental ironworks. But after joining the army in World War II, he stayed for the rest of his career as an executive in the Army Signal Corps. His mother was a schoolteacher and head of volunteers at Monmouth Medical Center.
Dick earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in chemical engineering. He came to Princeton as director of engineering and development for Princeton Chemical Research, then invested in and joined Systemedics, which did computerized medical billing, records, and consulting. He has also been adjunct faculty at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Dick also worked for the Carter administration as executive director of the White House Task Force on Workplace Safety and Health.
Vicky grew up in Cincinnati, where her father worked in the hospitality industry and her mother was a homemaker, taking care of her and her three brothers and four sisters. Because they both died in their 60s, Vicky did not get a chance to help them through the aging process, but she does remember the emotional support her mother provided her grandmother and great aunt as they got older.
Vicky earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Cincinnati. During her career she worked for all levels of government, including service as public affairs officer of the White House Regulatory Council during the Carter Administration. She also served as a budget and program analyst for the New Jersey legislature, ran a health center in Cincinnati during the “war on poverty,” and served on Princeton Township’s committee and on the zoning and regional planning board.
Vicky has also done volunteer work, including for Planned Parenthood and Community Without Walls, pretty much all her life, beginning at age eight when she ran a neighborhood carnival to raise money for a disease.
In 1980 Dick started his own business with Vicky, Project Masters, which provides stock photos in the areas of medicine, science, and technology. At the same time, they founded Savant Associates, which did consulting in the healthcare field until 1996 when the whole business had changed to a law firm model and a small firm couldn’t compete successfully.
Dick and Vicky Bergman call themselves retired but continue to work part-time for Project Masters.
Luckily much more information is available in the public media today than 20 years ago. “Now that baby boomers are aging and their parents are pretty far up there in years, the issue is impacting a lot more people,” says Vicky. For example, the New York Times has a new blog titled “The New Old Age: Caring and Coping.”
And organizations like CWW are here to give people the tools they need to maintain their independence. Vicky recalls that when caring for Dick’s mother, they would ask her what she wanted to do about this or that, and she would always respond, “Whatever you think is best,” which Dick notes was fairly typical for that generation.
But participants in CWW have a chance to do things differently. “It’s people taking charge of their own end of life rather than having things done for them when things happen,” says Dick.
20th Anniversary Conference, “Getting Older Then and Now,” Friday, October 5, from 4:30 to 8 p.m., and Saturday, October 6, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Frist Center of Princeton University.
Linda Meisel, executive director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, will speak on “Connecting the Generations”; and participants may choose workshops, including “Building a Successful Aide/Patient Relationship,” “Preparing for the Inevitable,” “Lifelong Learning,” “Poetry and Aging,” “Relationships across the Generations,” “Aging and Spirituality,” and “Volunteerism — Never-ending Possibilities in Life.” Cost: $50. Registration is closed. Call 609-921-0749 or visit www.princetoncww.org for information.