Recognizing that there's more to keeping older people healthy than traditional medical care can provide, the Crozer-Keystone Health System next week will start an unusual service that will help seniors find everything from snow shovelers to medical specialists.
Based on Beacon Hill Village, a Boston grassroots community program that links people 50 and older with discounted services and activities, Crozer-Keystone Village will help people find handymen or rides or make appointments for a membership fee of $49.95 a month.
While hospitals often have a hand in home nursing care, Crozer-Keystone is the first health organization to form a Village program, a concept operating in 15 communities and under consideration in 45 to 50 more.
The Villages and a similar approach based on "naturally occurring retirement communities," or NORCs, are part of a trend of giving people the help they need to grow old safely in their homes so they will not have to move to special facilities for the aged.
"We know that Americans, we want to stay at home, you know what I mean?" said Barbara Alexis Looby, an enthusiastic social worker who is administrative director of senior health services at Crozer. She said callers to the health system's senior support line made it clear that they needed a variety of coordinated services.
Crozer has hired a "navigator" - something like a concierge at a good hotel - who will help Village members make appointments for medical care or home repair work, help arrange for food to be brought to the home, even find someone to walk the dog.
Looby said she thought the services would help not only the elderly but also younger people who are balancing work and caregiving. "It's just the value of people's time. We all juggle," she said.
If a caregiver who normally cooks for a parent has to go out of town, this is a way to make sure meals will be brought in. "All my mom has to do is stick it in the microwave or oven, and whoopee," Looby said.
Residents of Beacon Hill started their Village in 2001 to connect neighbors with reliable service providers and organize interesting trips and classes. Its 450 members pay $600 to $850 a year.
Other groups can start Villages after buying Beacon Hill's Founder's Manual, which costs $350 to $500.
In June, residents of Old City, Queen Village and Society Hill started Penn's Village with Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals as partners. Hospital employees serve on the board, but the hospitals do not take as active a role as Crozer-Keystone will. They have agreed to help members navigate hospital services, said Tania Rorke, who runs Penn's Village.
The organization has 41 members who make about 100 requests for help a month, Rorke said. More than 30 volunteers fulfill 95 percent of the requests. People often want rides to a doctor's office or a grocery store. Some of the older members want someone to take them for a walk. One member who lives alone and does not have family in the area joined before surgery.
Penn's Village will expand into Center City next year.
Christine Arenson, Jefferson's director of geriatric medicine, said Jefferson thought it was better to link to existing programs than start its own. She's a big supporter of the Penn's Village idea. She said senior centers in the city were providing similar help.
Arenson said health systems were trying to improve coordination of medical care - hence the growing emphasis on patients' having a "medical home." But there is also a growing realization that people need all kinds of help to maintain their quality of life after they leave a hospital.
"We really need to be more holistic and looking at the big picture of people's lives and all of the things that affect their health," Arenson said.
Albert Einstein Medical Center was among a group of organizations that founded the West Oak Lane NORC Initiative in August 2007. It offers educational programs and help with errands.
Looby said she hoped Crozer-Keystone Village would grow enough to sustain itself, but the health system does not expect it to be a big moneymaker. "This is not a for-profit concept at all," she said. "This is a service-driven program."