Seniors trade skills, build community

Sara Broderick (left) and Sylvia Brown (right) became fast friends by joining TimeBank Santa Cruz to share their skills. Photo Lynn Graebner/California Health Report

Asking for help is often hard for seniors, but it’s getting easier thanks to an innovative web-based program underway in Santa Cruz and cities across the U.S. Time banks let seniors and people of all ages exchange their skills and time for services they need. By sharing their talents, time bank members are knitting together a multigenerational community, building support networks and friendships.

TimeBank Santa Cruz has 95 members who have exchanged more than 2,250 hours, said Bonnie Linden, strategic director of the organization founded in October 2011. While the time bank is a community resource attracting adults of all ages, there are lots of seniors involved, probably because many of them have the time, Linden said. And they definitely have skills to share.

“They have a lifetime of rich experience to offer,” she said.

Every hour of help, from acupuncture sessions to gardening, is valued equally and recorded. Each time bank hour can be redeemed for an hour of service from any other member. You can prepare a meal for someone and get computer help in return, or give a music lesson and get a ride to the airport.

“I think it has tremendous potential for seniors,” said TimeBank Santa Cruz member Jim Walt, a retired professor of marriage and family therapy at John F. Kennedy University in Campbell. “I like the idea of leveling the economic playing field with time. It’s more of an equal trade and there’s a higher likelihood of valuing what you do and what you get,” Walt said.

Robin Spring also likes the equity of the time bank as well as the community it provides. She’s 66 and is a social worker for Hospice of Santa Cruz. She’s single, with no close family in California, and is a new home owner on a budget.

She needed a bicycle to get more exercise. Overwhelmed with how to go about it, she found a couple in the time bank who did the research for her, found a bike on Craig’s List, negotiated a sale, fixed up the bike and delivered it. For $150 plus gas money Spring has a bike that meets her needs. And because the Bike Church Tool Cooperative, a do-it-yourself repair shop in Santa Cruz, is also a member, she’s received instruction on how to change a tire.

Through the time bank she offers services such as helping those who may need in-home support, health resource referrals and assistance navigating cancer treatment. She also recently prepared an advanced healthcare directive for someone. In addition to her healthcare skills she is also offering Spanish translation and gardening assistance such as pruning, critter control and how to simplify a garden for seniors.

Spring also said she sees how the time bank can help seniors build their social communities, especially those who may have just moved here, or lost a spouse.

“You’re connecting socially through a desire to give back to your community,” she said. “Having been through cancer treatment myself, I realized I need a bigger support network.”

“Health-care providers address the medical issues associated with aging, but there also needs to be a focus on the non-medical determinants of health to achieve long term health and wellness,” said Monique Lambert, a medical ethnographer for Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s David Drucker Center for Health Systems Innovation.

“We can’t wait for people to show up in the clinic. We need to look for new ways to maintain the health and wellness of a population in those places where people live work and play,” she said.

In April, the Foundation will launch a time bank in Mountain View. They hope to engage the community in a way that helps seniors age successfully in their own homes for as long as possible, Lambert said.

More than 300 time banks have sprouted throughout the world in more than 36 countries, reports TimeBanks USA, founded in 1995 in Washington D.C. to promote equality and the building of community economies. It offers support and resources for time banks including its Community Weaver open source software.

Some seniors in TimeBank Santa Cruz are providing the very health services they may need some day to other seniors. Erica Chapin, a time bank member and a physician’s assistant for the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center, is a senior. She offers her services as a medical advocate, going to doctor’s visits with people to help them formulate their questions, interpret information, take notes and be supportive.

Chapin said she’s made some amazing connections through the time bank. One couple helped her stack a cord and half of wood and she discovered the husband travels periodically to Ethiopia, where two of Chapin’s adopted children were born. So now when he travels there he takes things back to their relatives for them.

And the skills people offer through the time bank don’t have to be something they were trained in professionally. Sara Broderick, another senior time bank member, is a massage therapist, but she offers clutter clearing help, something she became interested in after reading a book on Feng Shui. She has used the time bank hours she’s earned to get help with her computer and massage. But for Broderick perhaps the biggest return on her investment so far has been a social one.

“A huge reward and benefit from being a time bank member is not only do we meet like-minded people, but I’ve made an absolutely fabulous friend,” she said. “We’re widening our sphere of people. It’s a sense of community I really appreciate.”

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