Supporting independence | November 30, 2012 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - November 30, 2012

Supporting independence

Pleasanton is a good place to grow old, thanks to Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Frances Dowdy, 88, was independent when she moved to Vineyard Villa 15 years ago. She has had trouble accepting the decline in her eyesight and mobility but is enthusiastic about the help she gets from Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley.

"They're a lifesaver," she exclaimed. "One lady in particular, she was like a lawyer, she did all of my paperwork with a traumatic case with mail fraud. She was so giving."

"Therapy, exercise -- they come to your house," she continued.

Dowdy has made a 26-year-old volunteer her honorary grandson for the work he does in her yard and taking her shopping.

"He has a good job and he wanted to give back," she said.

Senior Support helps the aging population in a multitude of ways, including dealing with problems of nutrition, exercise, drug and alcohol addictions, loneliness, isolation, loss of a loved one.

Its primary mission, said Executive Director Marlene Peterson, is to help older people stay in their homes.

"We want to keep people living in their homes as long as possible, safely, independently," she said. "When they are really shut-ins, we like to get them back into the community."

Counselors go into homes to talk to clients, often after firefighters or police alert Senior Support that someone might be in need. Sometimes solutions are simple once a problem is recognized.

"If you see someone shuffling it could be their toenails," Peterson said as an example.

But often they are afraid to ask for help or admit anything is wrong because family members might think they can no longer live alone safely.

"Everything threatens them," Peterson said.

Women whose role has always been to take care of others and their home may not be so good about caring for themselves, she pointed out.

The low-income population receives help from MediCal, Peterson noted; Senior Support Program works with the near-poor.

"Some have lost their investments," she said.

She told of a man who'd lost his job and was living with his elderly dad in Tracy. He talked to something at the Senior Support booth at a 1st Wednesday Street Fair, and the organization began to help them.

"Their lives have changed," Peterson said. "They told us everyone said Pleasanton people were snobs, but he said, 'I see a community of loving, caring people.'"

"I've been in this business a long time -- what keeps you going is people who care," Peterson added.

Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley celebrated its 30th anniversary in September. It began in 1981 with a Friendly Visitor volunteer program serving 35 seniors, working out of the Axis facility on Railroad Avenue, and now has 19 employees and more than 100 volunteers. They serve about 1,600 clients per month plus make approximately 5,000 information and referral calls and visits a year.

Senior Support is located at the Pleasanton Senior Center on Sunol Boulevard with its own entrance toward the front of the building, where it moved when an adult day care closed in 2000.

"Partnering with the Pleasanton Senior Center is a marriage made in heaven," Peterson said. "We are able to help people right away. If they need to get out, we just walk them over there."

"Part of problem is that people don't know how to access help," she added.

Jack Dove, 88, who is retired from the paint and chemical industry, discovered Senior Support when he moved from Alamo to Vineyard Villa in Pleasanton 25 years ago and realized some of his neighbors needed help. Now he lives at Ridge View Commons, a senior complex on Case Avenue that backs up to the Senior Center with an attractive walkway in between. Dove continues to serve as a liaison.

"My neighbor is probably around 85, and is in a doctor's care with a problem, and needed a heart procedure," Dove said to cite an example. "They have to give her tests in order to do the procedure, and they had to do the tests in Redwood City."

He contacted Senior Support, which arranged transportation with a volunteer driver.

"So many people in the Valley here have trouble getting to the doctor in Walnut Creek, in Antioch, at Stanford," Peterson said. "It's an impossible journey by municipal transportation."

Funding has been a problem from the beginning, Peterson said, with agencies preferring to fund programs that serve younger clients with a future. Also money has been directed to other parts of Alameda County due to Pleasanton's reputation for affluence.

But Senior Support has gained a reputation over the years, and recent grant applications have been successful.

Dove recalled standing on his balcony at Ridge View Commons looking over at the Pleasanton Senior Center with Quincy Campbell, past chairman of the Alameda County Area Agency on Aging.

"He said, 'Over there we get more value for our buck than anywhere in the county,'" Dove remembered.

"People are amazed at what we do with so little money," Peterson agreed, adding, "We couldn't do it without the community."

The program received $50,000 from Measure A funds, Peterson said, which goes toward its counseling program. A recent $250,000 grant from Alameda County Behavioral Health Services is allowing Senior Support to expand its alcohol and drug programs.

"Twenty years ago we first recognized a problem, and our program has been really successful," Peterson said. "We've made it fun and educational."

"We don't try to teach abstinence," she explained. "One elderly man said to me, 'Honey, when you're my age, you can tell me what to do.'"

The revised Behavioral Health Program, which started in June, focuses on mind and body fitness, and talks about alcohol, drugs and their abuse.

"It's a five-week series," said manager Lindsey Passmore. "First we meet and introduce the team and talk about what Senior Support does for the community and how to use us as a resource. We bring in goodies, it's very easygoing."

They move on to a half hour of exercise, seated or standing, and a 20- to 30-minute discussion of nutrition; a dietician teaches them how to read a nutrition label.

"There was a need, that's why this has been developed," Passmore said. "People were reporting more and more alcohol abuse and reporting depression."

She limits the classes to 10 to keep them intimate.

"I talk about how to make things healthier in our everyday diet, a generic overview," Passmore said. "I go into a discussion of alcohol and medication misuse, making it very casual and non-judgmental."

"Hydration is huge with seniors," she continued. "I recently learned that sensitivity to thirst decreases as we age. They might ask, 'Why am I getting a headache?' Or have dizziness or fatigue or blurred vision. One of the ladies said she was super dehydrated, and she almost blacked out."

They offer tips such as drinking 8 ounces of water with every meal plus another glass in between meals. They also share simple, healthy cost-effective recipes.

"One lady told me she took one of our recipes and cooked it for herself for her birthday and her best friend came over," Passmore said. "She said, 'I can't thank you enough.'"

They are grateful that someone is paying attention, she said.

"We do care," she said. "We want to provide them with whatever they need."

The Caregiver Support Group gathers each month at Senior Support to share stories and ideas about dependent spouses, or sometimes parents.

"Yesterday we had a tale of woe I couldn't believe," said facilitator Carol Bush recently. "A woman came in with a friend. Her mother is living with her, she looks after her grandchildren two days a week, and her sister is ill, living in another area."

After the group was finished, Bush met one-on-one with the woman.

"Let your sister look after herself," she advised, then made a date to go with her to look at respite opportunities for her mother later that week.

"Generally they don't know of any resources when they bring mom in to live with them," Bush said. "They think they are trapped, they can't get out of the house."

"Many are in the sandwich generation -- still caring for young children, working and trying to deal the best they can with mom and dad," she added. "I not only tell them about different resources but take them out and show them; hopefully I can refer them to ones that have an opening for them."

She said there are about 40 residential care homes in the Tri-Valley with 24-hour staff, and some, when they have an opening, will take people in for a short-term stay as a respite for their regular caregivers.

The Caregiver Support Group, which Bush started about eight years ago, has some oldtimers who give practical advice and tips they've learned from their own experiences.

"We call them 'the varsity,'" Bush said. "When someone new comes in, they don't know what to do -- maybe their husband is not sleeping. And there is resentment. They feel, 'He, or she, is ruining my life.' We try to help them realize, you don't have to do it alone. We try to come up with a variety of ideas and solutions."

When the spouse dies, the caregiver can join another group called Move on.

"Move On started out being grief support but then we realized there were other grief support groups so it developed into activities where they might meet for lunch, to play bocce ball, or go to dinner and a movie, to be with people who have been through a similar experience," Bush said.

The Friendly Visitor Program, headed by Lorie Rohloff, has about 250 clients, Peterson said.

Volunteers are always needed for the program, which matches volunteers with clients to help them with shopping and correspondence. Three times a year they have a luncheon to make sure the homebound seniors are able to socialize.

This program also makes phone calls to the housebound. This is not a quick check, Peterson said; they have long, friendly chats and get to know each other.

Senior Support also offers a registry to help people find in-home workers. Its coordinator visits clients at their homes to assess their needs, then supplies a list of possible workers after checking their references.

The various help given to clients is coordinated by a case manager, and services include transportation, setting up Meals on Wheels, helping with medical appointments and other in-home services and support. Detailed descriptions of all the programs can be found at the website Or for more information, call 931-5379 or drop in at 5353 Sunol Blvd.

All the pieces fit together like a puzzle, Peterson explained, with every part being complementary and part of the whole.

"We're a one-stop shop for seniors: transportation, exercise, fitness -- and what we don't have here, we will find them," she said.


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