By Cody Calamaio
Thursday, September 16, 2010; GZ17
After Lois Levitan fell down an escalator at Washington Dulles International Airport and tore skin from her right hand, the usually dexterous sculptor was unable to take care of herself. She knew she needed a hand -- Somerset's Helping Hand to be exact.
"I called Zola and she said, 'Yes, let me put a bulletin out,' " said Levitan, 78, of Somerset.
Zola Schneider, founder of the volunteer neighbor assistance program, Somerset's Helping Hand, organized volunteers to dress the wound on Levitan's hand twice a day for two weeks while she waited for a skin graft.
Whether they are cleaning wounds, grocery shopping or providing rides to a doctor's office, Schneider and the Somerset program's 30 volunteers are there to help. The group, which Schneider founded in 2007, averages two or three calls per month from the town's 1,100 residents, as well as the occasional emergency.
"It is kind of a good-neighbor policy," said Schneider, who declined to give her age. She formed the group after a discussion with another resident about ways they could assist the community. Although it serves mostly older residents, the group is available to anyone in need.
Somerset's Helping Hand is one model of a community support organization that is helping older residents stay in their homes in what Montgomery County officials have identified as emerging, naturally occurring retirement communities, according to a county government report from last year. The report offered recommendations aimed at enhancing the County Council's understanding of how Montgomery is assisting such communities.
The communities occur when a large number senior citizens show a preference toward remaining in their homes as they age, instead of moving to a planned retirement community, the report says.
Residents 65 and older composed 12 percent of the county's population of 931,000 in 2005, and the number is expected to increase to 17 percent by 2030, the report says. The planning area with the largest senior population is Aspen Hill, with 20 percent of residents older than 65, followed by Bethesda and Chevy Chase, with 18 percent, and North Bethesda, with 17 percent.
Neighborly assistance organizations such as Somerset's Helping Hand have emerged, as have groups known as "villages," which usually provide a larger range of services. These can include social activities and medical assistance, and sometimes they charge a fee.
Neighborhoods in Bethesda, Rockville, Chevy Chase, Cabin John and Garrett Park either have established or intend to establish elderly-assistance programs, the report says.
Somerset's Helping Hand is a vital part of keeping older residents thriving in their homes because it goes beyond what the town can provide to care for people as they age, Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin said.
"There are a lot of things that the government can't provide in terms of government and staffing, so it fills in the gaps," Slavin said.
In nearby Chevy Chase, a new "village" is emerging that seeks to provide a more complete scope of services to such residents.
Chevy Chase at Home, founded last year, received nonprofit status this summer and provides social opportunities such as book clubs and exercise programs to older residents, its president, Naomi Kaminsky, said. The group will expand to provide volunteer support services early next year.
About 350 people have expressed interest in becoming a member, and the program has received a $9,000 gift from the Town of Chevy Chase, said Kaminsky, 74, of the Town of Chevy Chase. Membership is limited to residents of Chevy Chase Village, the Town of Chevy Chase, the Village of Martin's Additions, Chevy Chase Section 3 and Chevy Chase Section 5.
Unlike those served by the Somerset group, residents seeking services from Chevy Chase at Home would pay an annual membership fee of about $250, Kaminsky said. Another membership category for purely social activities might be available at a lesser charge.
The membership fee will pay for expenses involving stage events and activities, as well as administrative costs for the group's office. Part of the money also would be used to sponsor seniors who can't afford to pay for their membership.
Paying for membership takes away the stigma of asking for help because many seniors are used to being self-sufficient and might not like to admit they need assistance, Kaminsky said.
Schneider agreed that asking for help isn't easy. But she said asking residents to pay for help defeats the point.
"We don't need an expert to do the things that we want to do," she said.
Building a community in which people are not afraid to ask for help is the goal of Somerset's Helping Hand. Schneider organizes volunteers through e-mail, to protect the privacy of those seeking help.
Kaminsky said older residents need more than just rides and simple volunteer services; they need advice and help with life's large issues. Group members discussed moving toward a more formal "village" organization but decided they operated best as a neighbor-to-neighbor organization, Schneider said.
"This really is an opportunity to meet people you might have seen but not really spoken to, and I think that's really one of the rewards," Schneider said. "It's brought a lot of us together in a different way."