Though it’s a national sport to complain about our culture, much of what we “know” is fed to us by national media that are fixated on what is nasty, brutish, scandalous or weird – all of which is amplified in the 24×7 national “news” cycle.
But if we stand back and look at things, especially at the local level – in our homes, neighborhoods and the communities where we live and work – much of what made America different, successful and unique is still there. Despite our shortcomings, there is much in our way of life to affirm.
One of those cultural traits is our propensity as a people to care for one another. The idea that we should “lend a helping hand” or “love your neighbor” is deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA and reflects our Judeo-Christian heritage.
This idea of caring for others can be found in everything from the community-supported barn-raising of frontier days to the volunteer fire departments that continue to protect many local communities, including right here in Maryland, where people freely give their time and talent to assist others in need.
What we see in these volunteer activities mirrors what Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than 180 years ago in his travel around the America of the 1830s – namely that for Americans “…each new need immediately awakens the idea of association…to attain the ends they propose.”
Tocqueville also observed that these associations were assembled by ordinary, everyday Americans – not the high and mighty and not the government, unlike his experience as a European.
This Tocqueville-like process happened in the Annapolis area 25 years ago when three women – Maureen Cavaiola, Sandy O’Conner, and Barbara Huston – joined together in 1993 to establish Partners In Care, a voluntary association formed in response to a social need.
The need they saw was the aging of America and especially the need to provide home-bound seniors the transportation services to shop for groceries, make health care appointments and visit the pharmacy.
Without a transportation service, many would drive themselves, endangering their own as well as public safety – or create a care-giving burden on friends and family, thereby reducing their independence.
With 10,000 Americans retiring every day – a process that began in 2011 and will continue for 12 more years through 2030 – there’s not enough money in the world, beyond the five or 10 percent who can afford it, for government or the private sector to finance formal “assisted living” for all who might want it or even need it.
Here is another example where voluntary associations step up to mobilize resources – time, talent and treasure – that would not otherwise be available to governments, creating a win-win all around.
Fortunately, surveys show that as many as 90 percent of seniors want to consider their house or apartment as a “home for a lifetime” provided they can do it safely and comfortably. Most want to experience the pleasure and satisfaction of living in a familiar environment throughout their life – including the ability to enjoy the daily rituals and special events that enrich our home life – until frailty, disease or disability require full-time institutionalized care in a hospital, nursing home or continuing care community.
The story of the visionary – and, at the time, transportation-centered – ideas of the founders and the subsequent development and progress of PIC was recently told by Linda Marie Hogan in More Than a Ride: How Time Exchange with a Social Enterprise Created an Extraordinary Network of Care for Older Adults (2017), a readable and revealing account of PIC’s evolution, available from Amazon Books.
Last year, PIC’s “Ride Partners” program provided nearly 11,000 rides to older adults – with volunteers using their own cars – providing transportation to non-emergency medical appointments, pharmacies, grocery stores, errands, recreation and visits to family and friends. That’s more than 200 rides per week!
In addition, in 2017, the PIC Up Bus provided more than 6,000 wheel-chair accessible, on-demand transportation services to older adults, a service currently limited to Anne Arundel County residents.
According to volunteer driver, Doris Durrett, “One of the great things about giving people a ride is the opportunity to talk with them. Every single person I’ve ever driven for has a fascinating story. All you have to do is ask. So many have challenges – mostly simple things like lawn care or a broken toilet seat that the so-called experts don’t even think about – and yet our members handle them with courage and often humor. It’s really inspiring to listen to their stories.”
Over the years drivers heard many stories about problems – fixing leaky faucets; changing burned out lightbulbs in a high, overhead light fixture; or stopping a leaky toilet. Those are real problems faced by those aging in place.
In response, PIC established a “Repairs with Care” program to help older adults maintain their homes for safe and independent living. In 2017, PIC handymen and women completed nearly 800 jobs – including the installation of safety equipment such as shower seats, toilet risers and grab bars and constructing ramps for those whose disabilities require the use of wheelchairs.
This new program did not come about because of a “needs assessment” or a consultant’s report. It happened because Partners In Care volunteers deal with real people on a personal basis, and the PIC staff deals directly with the volunteers who can hear about and see the needs of older adult members they serve week in and week out.
This down-to-earth approach beats the abstractions of the analytical world that drive most large organizations today. The PIC member sitting in the car with a PIC volunteer driving him or her to a physician’s appointment can engage in a direct conversation, by-passing the recorded message. Imagine that!
“Member Care” is another program that has evolved by listening to members. The Member Care team assists older adults to complete applications and other paperwork of daily life. The team also engages in friendly home visits for reading or board games –or to help members navigate agencies and institutions to find both emergency and long-term resources such as day-care or tax preparation services.
Member Care also provides a series of classes. The most popular include Fall Prevention and Home Care, Scamming and Fraud, Discussion on Death and Dying, Will and Estate Planning, Cooking with Crockpots and Self-Defense with a Cane.
More than 75 PIC volunteers operate “The Boutique,” an upscale resale store that generates about 40 percent of the revenue that supports PIC programs. According to deputy director, Linda Dennis, “We sell clothing, jewelry, books, kitchen and household items, vintage and antique items and furniture. We are a thriving social enterprise. We are a microcosm of PIC in action.”
Partners In Care, which provided more than 45,000 hours of volunteer service in 2017, is now beginning its next 25 years. PIC also has a new location on Ritchie Highway at Pasadena’s Festival Mall – and a new leader, Mandy Arnold. Arnold, with an enviable background in health care and education, was personally recruited by retiring CEO and PIC co-founder, Barbara Huston.
As a result, PIC continues to grow – both its geographic scope where it now serves four counties (Caroline, Frederick and Talbot in addition to its head office in Anne Arundel County) and its programs that respond to the grass-roots needs of a growing aging population.
Following a year-long transition, Arnold and the PIC Board are now pursuing an expanded agenda for fundraising and programs to support the independence and well-being of increasing numbers of older adults, the large majority of whom will be aging in place, a practice that greatly reduces human service demands on state and local governments.
Tocqueville once said, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” If this is the test we use to assess the quality of our community and if Partners In Care is the test case, we are sure to pass with flying colors.