SANBORNTON — With one of the state’s first farmer’s markets, an historic tavern, a gazebo for band concerts and a library where everybody knows almost everyone else, Sanbornton may be a poster community for small town life. Potluck suppers and pancake breakfasts abound – at least they did before COVID shuttered civic and social gatherings.
Now, in the wake of the year-long pandemic, Sanbornton boasts a new tradition – one that will help older residents stay in touch and learn ways to age successfully at home: Sanbornton Connect. Last year a group six friends in their early 70s decided to do something to help themselves and their peers sprinkled across the town’s 49.8 square miles. Now their grassroots solution may inspire other New Hampshire communities with growing populations of seniors to create similar networks of aging residents.
“Any community can do what we did,” said Karen Ulmer Dorsch, 83, a retired teacher and co-organizer of Sanbornton Connect, who also volunteers for AARP. “We just got together and said ‘We need these things.’ I want to be able to live here until my last breath. But I’m not going to be able to do it without help.”
“When you’re older, you start to go downhill. The vast majority of us want to stay in our own homes. We have to figure out how we’re going to do that,” said Jackie Bonafide, a long-time resident who co-founded Sanbornton Connect – perhaps not a moment too soon.
Sanbornton is the second-largest community in Belknap County, and has one of the lowest population densities. In 2019, before COVID hit, 29.5 percent of the town’s residents were age 60 or older, a percentage predicted to rise. In nine years, nearly 32 percent of the population of the Lakes Region will be age 60 or older if current demographic trends continue. Sanbornton Connect fills a critical niche, and it is a model that may be contagious.
“I have a life here. I have friends and a community here. I love it and value and treasure it. The question is, how do I stay?” said Nina Gardner, 74, who has lived in Sanbornton for most of her adult life, and raised two daughters who now live too far away to respond in an emergency, or on a regular basis. The thought of leaving town is inimical to Gardner, who wants to stay here as long as possible. “It’s a friendly, giving and kind community, and you get people coming in from lots of places.”
More than a virtual coffee hour or online catch-up session, Sanbornton Connect’s monthly Zoom meeting provides a clearinghouse for people who need answers and help with the physical, mental and emotional challenges of aging at home – especially those who live alone or care for aging spouses.
“I think it’s raising awareness of what it is to age in place,” said Anne Howe, a retired resident who worked as a nurse for 41 years. “It’s important for all of us to make a plan, however loose or detailed.” What you learn in the group “you send to one person, who sends it to the next person. It’s making an impact” beyond the immediate meeting.
Life during the pandemic previewed many of the hurdles of aging in rural New Hampshire, the nation’s second-oldest state – including what it will be like when you can no longer drive or go places alone, when food shopping requires help and planning and internet savvy, and when gatherings of family and friends are held by Zoom or Skype – and when physical and health challenges increase your isolation.
It’s a 20-minute ride for Gardner to visit Bonafide, who she’s known since PTA meetings when their children attended the Sanbornton Central School together. “Sanbornton is not a dead place, but it closed down during COVID. That might be what it will be like when I or my husband are in our house alone.”
A community clearinghouse on aging
Since Sanbornton Connect first convened in January 2020, the group has grown to 36 people who tune in to experts discussing different aging topics, share advice from caregiving to end-of-life planning, and trade intel on contractors who will come to your house to build a ramp or make a small porch repair.
Over the past year, Sanbornton Connect has hosted speakers from Central NH VNA, Helping Hands for Seniors in the Lakes Region and ServiceLink, including authorities on Medicare options. Its programs are designed to help members locate and navigate area resources – including some they never knew existed. They get advice from others who have been in the same boat, and relief from cabin fever – both without leaving home.
“Coming to grips with the aging thing, you go, ‘Nah,’ especially if you’re an independent person,” said Stephen Tessler, 74, who lives in a hilltop farmhouse surrounded by vegetable gardens he’s tended for decades. Tessler recently joined Sanborton Connect. “It’s odd being on a Zoom call when everyone else is as old or almost as old as you are. It’s very refreshing.”
Tessler cared for his elderly father at home, and through Sanbornton Connect he learned about Helping Hands for Seniors of the Lakes Region and Central New Hampshire VNA and Hospice, resources that he himself can now tap.
“Even climbing up an extension ladder, you get to the third rung and say, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” A neighbor recently repaired his dirt driveway and dug out lingering ice. “I love my place. I want to stay. But this is a very significant transition,” said Tessler, who taught English at Winnisquam High School for 31 years and wants to expand his contacts. “So many of us are going from being a caregiver to being a client” for services at home during this phase of life. Sanbornton Connect will help Tessler find people he can call, especially for chores he can’t tackle.
Bonafide said the goal is to enable seniors to age safely with grace and dignity, where they want to be, and be able to connect with peers as well as younger generations. Often seniors go into assisted living then find it’s too restrictive, and much more than they need.
“A year ago, before the pandemic started, I discovered that as people age, including myself, sometimes you get blindsided by something you didn’t expect, a chronic illness or a dramatic decline.“You think, ‘I’m going to live forever, then I’ll die in my sleep.’ Then you wonder, ‘Who can I call? Who can help me? Should I sell my house tomorrow?’”
“There are a lot of organizations for seniors, but until you’re in a crisis you don’t really care,” Bonafide said. “Sometimes you don’t know the difference between home care and home health care. People need to figure out whether they need assisted living, or whether some other option will work.”
The group has attracted older members from the “We love Sanbornton!” Facebook page. Membership is open to Sanbornton residents by word of mouth.
Bonafide said Sanbornton Connect doesn’t intend to provide meals, transportation, or volunteers who commit to helping seniors on a regular basis – those services are available from other sources. It will remain mostly an information exchange and social network.
Post-COVID plans include in-person gatherings, such as coffee hours and pot luck suppers at the Lane Tavern, Sanbornton Public Library and Sanbornton Congregational Church. Upcoming speakers will address topics including transportation, computer and internet access and education, senior housing, care planning and caregiver support, isolation and scams. Regional service providers will explain what their agencies offer. So far an alliance has been forged with Helping Hands – Senior Support for the Lakes Region, which will now serve clients in Sanbornton.
“We’re trying to educate ourselves about all the resources that are out there, and which ones are important in which circumstances,” said Bonafide.
Similar programs in Gilford and elsewhere
It's not the first virtual village meeting to tackle the interrelated issues of aging independently while maintaining a full and active life. Sanbornton Connect was inspired by systems in place elsewhere, including Communities Without Walls in New Jersey, and the Village to Village Network which began in Boston and now has member communities in Keene, Jaffrey, Lyme, Littleton, New Castle and Nashua.
Gilford Neighbors – spun off last month from the Gilford Senior Response Team, a volunteer outreach through the Gilford Community Church – is now organizing as a senior-oriented nonprofit with assistance from the Partnership for Public Health, which will enable it to apply for grant funding, said Molly Notkin, a leader at GSRT. Gilford Neighbors includes a new assistant librarian at the Gilford Public Library whose job is to focus on senior services and programming.
According to the 2019 New Hampshire Healthy Aging Data Report, 34.5 percent of Gilford’s residents are age 60 or older. Gilford Neighbors, an information, referral and volunteer network, hopes to become a model for other communities seeking to enable retirees and elders to stay healthy, active and local.
Sanbornton Connect hopes to be another jigsaw piece in the puzzle, a self-sustaining way to help local seniors grow old in a place they know well.
“It shakes up your brain,” seeing the ways aging changes yourself and the people you love, Tessler said. “I needed help making this transition. If you’re really self-reliant, you don’t want to rely on your neighbors and you don’t want to ask for help.” However, there comes a time when reaching out is the only way to protect one’s independence and finding out where to turn can make all the difference – especially for those who can’t or don’t want to move.
“Á bunch of us have lived here for all of our adult lives. We’ve contributed to the community and volunteered at schools and the library,” Bonafide said. “We’re trying to make it realistic for us to stay here – without falling off any ladders.”
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com