Community Without Walls co-founder Vicky Bergman says one of the catalysts for the creation of the Princeton-based senior citizen support organization came when her husband’s parents’ golden years went dark.
“They were in their mid-80s, and his father had Parkinson’s and his mother was doing the best she could,” she says about husband Richard’s parents.
Then, when her father-in-law died, her husband’s mother announced she “was not going back to ‘that’ house” and moved in with them.
“We were in mid careers and had an active life,” says Bergman. “That was difficult because all she wanted to do was to sit in the living room and have Dick sit with her. We got someone to sit with her for four hours a day, but it didn’t work.
“What distressed us about Dick’s mother was she had no idea of what might happen or what she would do after her husband died.”
After researching and finding a retirement community for her, Bergman says, “We felt there had to be a better way to address aging.”
With a master’s in public administration from the University of Cincinnati and a career in government work — including serving as a White House Regulatory Council public affairs officer, New Jersey State Legislature budget and program analyst, Atlantic County health planner, and Princeton Township Planning Board member — Bergman was already primed for finding and accumulating information for decision making.
One activity she and her husband attended had an unexpected result. “The Omega Institute had a conference on aging. It was in New York, and there were sessions on housing, health, spirituality, social connections, and transportation.”
Also attending was Harriet Bogdonoff, a Princeton geriatric social worker the Bergmans knew and who showed an interest in the subject. The three decided to continue to discuss the topic and engaged retired Princeton Packet manager Roz Denard, who had recently experienced a situation with an elderly parent.
“We had a couple of meetings and decided that if we were interested others would be interested, too. So we went to our rolodexes and made a list of 80 names we thought would be interested in coming to talk about it. Everyone showed up, and we decided it was worth getting together to talk some more. After a few years we incorporated and applied for (nonprofit status) and kept having monthly meetings. We had over 100 people and talked about how what was missing was social support.
“Harriet said the greatest need was social connection. What happens if you spouse gets ill or your friends get ill or move away? So we decided to focus on social connections.”
She says the Community Without Walls name was selected because “it wasn’t for a senior center or retirement community.” It was for seniors living in their homes in a larger community.
The initial organizers also decided there should be two different types of meetings: informative and social. The former would include topics ranging from nutrition to sexuality. The other would engage and connect members.
Bergman says the “house” concept came from examining data. “I went into the sociological literature to find how large a group could be so there could be interaction. It was 125.”
Providing an example, Berman cites a company that once it hires 125 employees in one division begins a new division rather than expand.
She says CWW applied the practice early after a group of women with whom she interacted became interested and “asked if they could start another division. That took off. So we decided to name them houses” and use numbers.
Among the early challenges, Bergman says she asked herself, “How can this work with so many groups and people interested in different kind of things? You say, ‘We’re going to build a community’ and it sounds all touchy-feely. But people participated, and we found it worked.”
Bergman says she was surprised by “how many people were interested and wanted to be involved. At the height of our membership we had more than 400 members. It declined because all who started it are 20 years older. Some who started it were in their late 60s.”
She says the reason is that the founders touched a universal nerve: “Everyone gets older. And with that comes uncertainty and challenges. Some retain their stamina, and some people lose pieces of memory. You don’t know how it will work or what hand you’re going to be dealt.”
With numbers and connections, CWW proactively began cultivating the community and in 1995 held two conferences. One was White House Mini Conference on housing needs, co-sponsored with the Princeton Senior Resource Center. The other was on issues related to growing older.
Still engaged with the company they founded, Project Masters, and active with area nonprofits, Bergman says, “A major lesson is that people don’t think about aging or about getting older. But when you do, you be proactive, decide what your aging is going to be like.
What CWW has done is to help people think about what life will be like in five or ten years: “What happens when my spouse dies? Where will I move?”
From discussions of health, housing, transportation, and social support, one of the things that came out was a need for support for people who wanted to age in their homes and not go to a retirement community.
“If you look at research, something like 80 percent of people wants to age in their homes. If the support exists, you can do that.”
In the aftermath of CWW’s 20th anniversary conference hosted by Princeton University, the group was able to see the creation of Secure@Home.
Part of the Jewish Family and Children Services, Secure@Home is a membership organization that connects aging homeowners to social workers and nurses to provide home and health support assessments.
Overall, Bergman says, despite an increase in services for seniors, “An important thing is people coming together to talk about how you, want to age, take charge of your aging, and choose how you want to age.”