Concierge service helps seniors live at home longer

Luba Krivoshey joined because she didn’t want her children to worry. Evelina Lowenthal, who lives alone, knew she needed an emergency response system for a possible medical crisis. And Barbara and Arnold Largever became members when their daughter, visiting from Manhattan, insisted they look into a new service she had just heard about.

The three families are charter members of a concierge program offered by Jewish Community Services for older adults in northeast Miami-Dade who prefer to stay at home but might need help with tasks as varied as shopping, doctor visits, meal home delivery and referrals to discounted and approved repair services. Though JCS is the largest non-profit Jewish social service agency in South Florida, it serves people of all religions and ethnicities.

“We’re adding another level of services for communities we know need it,” said Marli Lutz, director of the program, called the Surf Bal Bay Club . “People join for the peace of mind. In case something happens, they know we’ll be there.”

Launched in November, the club is aimed at people 60 and older in Surfside, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands and Aventura, communities with a high percentage of retirees. So far 25 have paid a fee — $499 annually, $275 for half a year, or $50 monthly — to get the individualized attention. “This helps them keep their independence as long as they can,” Lutz added. “Many of the people who have signed up so far say they don’t want to bother family members. They don’t want to feel a burden.”

Krivoshey, 84, was one of them. Two of her three daughters live in Miami, but they’re on the opposite end of the county. “I like the idea that I have transportation to go where I need to go without having to bother anyone,” she said. Some of her trips have included doctors’ appointments in Aventura, outings to the movies and a visit to her shul. She’s also planning to attend book club meetings at the Surfside Community Center.

“If it’s a big thing like cataract surgery, of course I’ll tell my daughters and they’ll want to come, but I’m not going to bother them for every little thing,” she said.

At 69, Lowenthal doesn’t need transportation to appointments. Instead she uses the Surf Bal Bay Club to subscribe to the Masada emergency response system, which is part of the club privileges. She jokingly refers to the pendant she wears around her neck as “my salvation button” because by simply pressing it, an emergency call for help goes out with her information. She also took an exercise program through the club.

“My kids love the idea that I got this,” she said. “They’re relieved. They know I’m well taken care of.”

JCS plans to roll out the program to other areas in the county where demographics justify the need. “We’re looking to where older people are and where these services aren’t available,” Fred Stock, the CEO of JCS, said. “The driving force will be people who have lived in a community a long time and have developed roots and want to remain there as long as they can.”

The Surf Bal Bay Club is an example of a growing national trend to help seniors age at home by providing one-phone-call access to needed services. It’s also part of what senior advocates are calling “the village movement,” a community effort that links neighbors together to help each other. The Village to Village Network, an organization created in 2010 to provide start-up help to new villages, says there are more than 100 of the groups across the country.

In Florida, there are villages in the works in Maitland, Celebration, both near Orlando, and Wellington in Palm Beach County. “A church or another already existing community group is... a good starting point because there are already structures in place to collaborate,” said Natalie Galucia, member services coordinator for the Village to Village Network.

The concept began in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 2001. A group of residents, led by two older women living alone, founded a nonprofit to provide or negotiate services and support for seniors who wanted to stay in their homes. “They realized they needed help coordinating all of the supports and services to make this a reality and there was nothing like this readily available for them in the community,” Galucia said.

The Beacon Hill Village proved popular, first in urban areas and then in suburbs and smaller rural communities. While each village differs depending on the needs of the members, most offer discounted services that have been vetted by the organization.

Changing demographics support the village concept. The 65 and older set numbered 41.4 million in 2011, an increase of 18 percent since 2000, according to the federal government’s Administration on Aging. That number is projected to almost double by 2040, with much of the growth from the over 85 crowd, expected to jump from 5.7 million to 14.1 million.

Those are the people who will need more of the kinds of services Surf Bal Bay Club provides. Almost 12 million older Americans live alone, and twice as many women than men do. Numerous surveys show that they prefer to stay home, among familiar surroundings and with longtime friends nearby. That option is also cheaper than going to an institution, which can run into tens of thousands of dollars annually.

“There’s a challenge here,” JCS’s Stock said, “because the older a person gets, the more services they need, but also the more comfortable they are in their own home.”

The first concierge service in Florida was launched in Coral Gables about five years ago by the Coral Gables Community Foundation. It eventually closed when it couldn’t sign up enough members. Lutz, who served as its director for a time, said the program registered 120 members but needed twice as many to stay afloat.

JCS’s version is different, with the agency building on an already existing system of resources and venues to provide services. “We already have an array of programs, so this has allowed us to do a relatively quick start up,” Stock said.

Part of the challenge may be to convince members to use more of their membership privileges. The Largevers of Bay Harbor Islands — Barbara, 77, and Arnold, 86 — use a discounted service to employ a companion four days a week. She drives them to appointments and occasionally does light cleaning. “It’s an absolute godsend,” said Barbara.

But the couple knows the club provides plenty more and is planning to explore educational programs and cultural activities.

“They have events all the time, and I hear they’re fantastic,” she added. “We really have to take advantage of what they’re offering.”