“I was in my early 50s and had no interest. I was too busy with other things,” says Karen Schotland about her introduction to the Princeton-based nonprofit senior citizen organization Community Without Walls.
“My husband I had four children and ran (Schotland Business Research) and traveled around the world,” she adds.
But, as the organization’s current president says during a recent interview, life and attitudes changed, especially when “things slowed down and the kids were grown.”
She says that is when many recent retirees and empty nesters “have a lot of time on their hands and need to make new friends.”
That’s what happened to Schotland, who says, “I was having lunch one day at Main Street in Kingston and saw someone I knew from my kids’ school. She was telling me that she was going to meet some friends from CWW, and I was interested.”
She and her husband, Ron, decided to join, were reintroduced to people they had known, met new people, and made new friends.
“It is a social group,” she says about the best way to think of the organization of approximately 350 members. “When CWW was originally founded, it was to make Princeton more age friendly. And the organization achieved much of what it aimed to do: a senior center, senior housing, and the bus (for seniors).
“We work with Princeton Senior Resource Center. The Evergreen Forum was originally a CWW idea and taken over by Princeton Senior Resource Center — with our blessing.”
While PSRC’s and CWW’s populations “are slightly different,” Schotland says, “Our common goal is to provide support for people living independently as they age.”
To show how CWW provides its support, she talks how the organization is designed and that members join chapters or “houses” — all given a simple numerical name in order of establishment.
“Every house has its own personality,” she says. “There are five houses of small groups of people — 50 to 100. They are run independently — they have their own steering committees, interest groups, and social activities.
“One house just had a virtual cocktail party on Zoom, and everyone has a drink and snack and had a conversation. Someone had a dessert party. Some of the houses will have a lot of speakers and have people outside the house; some will only have speakers from within. The interests are decided upon by the house — a winetasting or brunch or ethnic dinners.
“(But) the common theme is that everyone wants to be part of a group. Some of us lost friends who moved away or left this earth. We need to have new friends to continue our social lives, and this is a way of doing that.”
She says the membership generally ranges in age from early 60s to people in their mid-90s — although someone in their 50s married to someone older is welcome.
And while the organization was originally a Princeton community group, it is now open to people who live in work in Mercer County or live in Middlesex and Somerset.
But, she says, the “majority of people are Princeton-centered. Their activities are centered towards Princeton.” She cites examples of members who are area doctors and university professors.
She says annual membership dues are decided by each house and range between $25 and $40 per year. Monies provide for house-specific projects and support the small general operating budget (currently slightly less than $10,000).
Funds are used to pay basic costs and this year include cost related to Zoom-services that allowed the organization to hold remote meetings usually scheduled at the D&R Greenway Johnson Center or Senior Resource Center, both in Princeton.
The organization is an all-volunteer entity governed by a board of directors that includes representatives from each house.
She says membership “is quite diverse” and involves people from various religions and native countries. “It is basically the same as the general community. The organization has no affiliation with a religion — we have a ‘holiday’ party. It is ecumenical.”
She says the group is always open to members and says that some “move here from another place and not know anyone and say they would like to become a member.”
Schotland says the organization takes the prospective member’s information and sends it to the various houses to determine a match of interests and willingness to participate, something “all the houses want.”
In addition to social events and activities, houses may also have a specific interest, such as issues related to dying or how to remain healthy, safe, and active in one’s home.
Prospective members are then invited to attend house meetings. “We want to make people feel comfortable,” she says.
She says while applicants are never turned away, some find house members too old, too young, or focused on unshared interests and choose not to join.
“Our house requires you attend three meetings a year,” Schotland says as she shares CWW expectations.
“We want people who want to be active.” That includes being engaged with other members and contacting others, especially during the current pandemic.
“It is a time of isolation. Some people are single and alone. Some said (reaching out and communication) was more important now that it had been in the past because people are not getting out,” she says.
Additionally, members need to contribute to the reality they belong to a group whose members will help other members when needed — that includes taking someone to a doctor or supermarket.
Schotland continues with examples of her own participation. “I am an alternate member of some of the movie groups, and we started a bridge group — that is what I participate in the most. My husband is involved with a photography group. We have talks about music and flowers, and we’ve given a lot of travelogue talks. I’m interested in a lot of different things.”
It’s an interest developed from work and volunteerism.
The daughter of an MIT graduate builder of commercial buildings father and a commercial artist mother, Schotland grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Leslie College in Cambridge and a master of arts from Columbia.
She moved to Princeton in 1970 when her husband, with a doctorate in polymer chemistry, took a job with American Can Company. They later started their company that organized international conferences on business packaging.
“I was a 25-year volunteer at the Princeton Hospital emergency room. And my husband and I started a nonprofit three years ago — Mental Wellness Coalition New Jersey. We started that at 75 and 85 years of age. We’ve been married 55 years.”
Speaking personally about her involvement in the community, she says, “I feel useful helping other people, and it makes me feel good myself. I stared working at Mercer Hospital when my own child became ill with mental health issues. Working in an emergency room helps you put your life in perspective.
“A lot of people need to know that someone cares. And I think CWW does that. People are there to talk to and be friends.”
She says her rise to CWW’s president began when she was on the steering committee for her house. It was then that co-founder and president Vicky Bergman said she was going to step aside, and “if no one was going to fill the spot they would have to hire someone. I didn’t believe in (hiring a president). So I said I would do it. This is my fourth year.”
Asked about her strengths, Schotland says, “I think I’m organized and a detailed person and honestly want to know what other people think so everyone is heard.
“My concern is that people feel comfortable and useful and have a reason for getting up in the morning. And every day is some day that should give you some pleasure. The trick is to do something you enjoy every day.”
For more information or to join Community Without Walls, go to www.cwwprinceton.org.