Caring Collaboratives: ‘Help Insurance’ for Women

Published In Elder Care

As they retire or embrace new work and social connections, many women seek and find solace and support by joining The Transition Network (TTN), a group offering programs, events, networking opportunities, and workshops in local chapters throughout the country. Though the organization’s tagline touts “Embracing Change After 50,” which it talks up as “an amazing stage of life filled with opportunity,” many members stressed they found it a little hard to cozy up to one of aging’s nearly inevitable changes: the setbacks suffered due to an injury or other health crisis.

So some local chapters have added “help insurance” to their offerings: Caring Collaboratives that aim to promote healthy independence. TTN members who volunteer to assist other members as part of the Collaboratives don’t provide full-on in-home care services such as help with managing medications and personal hygiene. But they do provide women with something deeper: the ability to remain home and get by with a little help from their newfound friends in TNN after a short-term illness or disability strikes.

That assuages the fears and helps calm the realities of many of the members who mirror the women who live in the U.S.: 33% of those 65 and older live alone; 43% of women live solo after age 75. according to a November 22 publication based on data compiled by the federal government’s Administration for Community Living.

A Bit About the Mothership

Caring Collaborative’s parent organization, TNN, was founded in New York in 2000 with a steering mission of “fostering opportunities to bring women together in mutually supportive communities during times of transition and beyond.” It currently boasts 14 local chapters, from Billings to Boston; so far, three of them — in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area and Philadelphia — include Caring Collaboratives as one of the programs offered. Described as non-medical health support services, some people say they’re inspired to join the bigger group just because of that assurance.

TNN memberships costs $85 per year ($160 for two years) and include access to workshops; member-only newsletters; and special interest groups that take on everything from hiking, to tours of nearby attractions, to TED Talk discussions, to simple Meet and Eat sessions about town . You may join other chapters which have additional fees (ranging from $15-50 per year depending on the chapter). 

Those who live outside areas currently without active chapters can also join TNN  which includes access to monthly peer telephone groups led by a facilitator.

Women Helping Women

Caring Collaboratives differ from most other “neighbor helping neighbor” groups in that their members, TTN members all, are also all women.

“One of the things that we found is that while women are great at providing care, they’re not that good at asking for care when they need it,” says Janet Mandelstam, lead for the East Bay Caring Collaborative operating outside of San Francisco. “To encourage women to ask for help, we arrange get-togethers a few times a year where we discuss things like balance, sleep, and nutrition. But the biggest benefit is the people in the group start to know and become comfortable with one another.”

Caring Collaboratives may help with medical challenges by going along on doctor appointments, pitching in with household chores such as grocery shopping, visiting those who are temporarily shut in, and preparing meals. Members also offer another invaluable service: recommending tried and true local medical practitioners to those in search of them.

In times gone by, these tasks might be attended by family members, or volunteers from community organizations or religious groups. But these days, families are often far-flung — and many groups that used to provide such help have disbanded or retrenched.

Mandelstam, one of the founding members of her local Caring Collaborative that started up in 2009, had occasion to put the group to the empirical test. “For many years, I provided services to others when I could,” she says. “Then, in late 2017, I injured my knee and had a big brace on my driving leg. I put out a notice that I needed a ride to MRI and orthopedic appointments, and was very gratified to know there was an immediate response.”

She emphasizes that one of the keys to success is that group members are very careful to respect one another’s privacy. “We’re very clear that the person who requests service decides how much information to share,” she says. “The majority of our requests are for rides, often to medical appointments. And that might mean you will pick up and drop off a person without any explanation — or she might want you to come in and take notes while the doctor is meeting with her.”

About Caring Collaboratives

For those interested in replicating the idea of a supportive Caring Collaborative, the group offers a publication, Quick Start Guide. Acknowledging that members in different localities have their own unique needs and resources, the Guide lists a “menu of options” Caring Collaboratives might offer, beyond volunteers providing requested services.

Other possible components include:

  • Member Information Exchanges (MIX) — a way for members to exchange information about medical conditions or procedures based on their own experiences
  • Resource Directories — links to information and sources on topics such as local food delivery services, home equipment providers, and other support services
  • Educational Programs — including practical strategies for staying healthy and independent, and
  • Periodic Group Meetings — loosely organized to discuss health issues, share resources, and importantly, forge deeper connections with other members who might be asked to provide care.

With such a hearty menu of potential offerings, most members are able to secure the “help insurance” that allows peace of mind when living alone. In fact, Mandelstam recalls that in the decade since her group has been in existence, it has only been unable to fulfill one request: help with daily dog-walking. “It was a big dog,” she says. “A very big dog.”

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