Thomas Hayduk wasn’t sure what he was going to do upon being released from the hospital.
Following a serious car accident in 2016, the 72-year-old Buffalo resident could no longer drive and was, as he puts it, in need of socialization.
Now a car comes right to Hayduk’s home and drives him to places like the local community center for low-impact pool exercises. He also gets taken out for coffee, lunch and movies with other older adults.
“It’s been golden,” he said.
Hayduk is one of approximately 200 Buffalo seniors enrolled in Canopy of Neighbors. The nonprofit deploys volunteers to drive older adults to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store and even social outings with other adults enrolled in the program. Volunteers may even help put away groceries or fix the television.
Canopy of Neighbors is part of the national Village to Village Network that was started in the Boston area in 2002. There are now more than 240 volunteer villages and 100 more in development in 41 states.
The goal of these villages is to help seniors age in place while also fighting off the feelings of isolation that can come from living alone.
“This is about empowering people to give them the tools they need to age with health and responsibility and happiness, and give them the dignity they deserve,” said Canopy of Neighbors Executive Director Sasha Yerkovich. “This is a grassroots movement that’s taking people in their homes and people in their communities that are looking to bond and help each other.”
Canopy of Neighbors officials say this village system can actually cut costs for the Medicare and nursing home systems, which could be overwhelmed by an older American population expected to grow to 90 million by 2050.
“As people’s health deteriorates due to lack of care, they’re at much greater risk of needing to be institutionalized,” said Toby Laping, who co-founded Canopy of Neighbors in 2011. “Once people are institutionalized, the cost to insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid, go up. This is such an obvious way to save money.”
“It’s important for us to disrupt this traditional notion of how we take care of people at the beginning of this and how it’s funded,” Yerkovich added. “It should be understandably cheaper to help people when you intervene at the beginning and avoid that long track (to assisted living and nursing homes).”
Such community efforts may be gaining some support.
Numbers in Need, a project by the Oishei Foundation’s Mobile Safety-Net Team and the University at Buffalo, recently called for expanding volunteer organizations that allow seniors to age in place and travel to social events that reduce isolation.
According to the Numbers in Need report, 17 percent of Buffalo seniors live in poverty and about one third don’t own a car.
Canopy of Neighbors members pay a membership fees based on income. Members making less than $39,000 pay $120 a year, while those making more than $39,000 pay $400 a year.
There’s also benefits for the volunteers, who include everyone from retirees to college students.
Karen Rumsey was searching for volunteer opportunities after retiring as a psychiatrist this summer.
“This one seemed to be a fit,” she said. “It was grassroots, hands-on, something I knew I could do and wanted to do, and you could see the immediate effect of the volunteering, giving someone a ride, having a conversation.”
Indira Kartha has appreciated the conversations Canopy of Neighbors has given her. The 86-year-old widow and retired physician says she was lonely before becoming a member nearly eight years ago.
“The people (I’ve met in) Canopy will call me and ask, ‘How are you this week?’” she said. “That’s a big thing.”
Canopy of Neighbors holds its offices, as well as its coffee hours, at Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue. It originally serviced older adults living in just two zip codes on Buffalo’s West Side, but has since expanded to the city’s East Side, Waterfront area and Parkside area.
Yerkovich said they hope to eventually cover the entire city, as well as encourage other villages to start in the city’s surrounding suburbs.
“It’s literally creating — the overused term — a village of people who can help each other,” she said.