Boise at Home was designed to help the Treasure Valley’s older residents stay in their homes and be independent for as long as possible. But when the organization folded this fall, its members were left to fend for themselves.
Its demise is a sign of trouble ahead for the region’s growing senior population.
The nonprofit organization seemed like such a good idea when it began serving the region in February 2016. Older adults with no family members nearby could join Boise at Home and call for help with daily tasks whenever they needed.
The membership fee was $425 a year for an individual or $530 for a household.
“Our mission is to help people remain living at their own home as long as they wish by providing volunteer services and a handyman service and social activities so they don’t become isolated,” said Diane Ronayne, who helped create the organization.
Cynthia Brownsmith is a licensed psychologist whose daughter lives in North Carolina, more than 2,000 miles away. She’s 70, single, and joined Boise at Home as an insurance policy. When she needed back surgery and her cell phone died, she knew who to call for help getting it fixed.
“I really didn’t have anybody, and I felt secure,” Brownsmith said. “That was the most important thing, was the feeling of being truly secure and supported.”
But after a year and a half of serving the region, Boise at Home closed its doors on Halloween, leaving members like Brownsmith without an important safety net.
“I’m heartbroken. I’m still,” Brownsmith paused, holding back tears. “Sorry. I’m still heartbroken, because they tried so hard and because I need them. I’m sorry. I just feel so sad.”
Idaho is growing fast, and no group is growing faster here than older adults. The state has added 116,000 people since the 2010 census, and more than half of them are older than 65.
Melissa Radloff has seen this change first hand. She’s the project manager for Legacy Corps, which provides respite for people caring for loved ones with ailments like Alzheimer’s disease.
“The retirees are no longer retiring in Florida and Arizona,” Radloff said. “There’s now quite a few places they’re going to retire, and Boise, Idaho is one of those top six places in the country.”
Radloff is worried about this growing population. Legacy Corps has a long waiting list, and the group is actively recruiting scarce volunteers.
Gerontologist Stephanie Bender-Kitz is also concerned, because she knows how important it is for older adults to be independent. Bender-Kitz runs an organization called Honoring Choices Idaho, an advanced care planning initiative. She has worked with seniors in Idaho for decades.
“Why is aging in place relevant? First and foremost, it’s because that’s where most people say they want to live and die — is in their home,” Bender-Kitz said. “Providing support for people to live and die where they say they’d like to, that’s the right thing to do.”
Dorothy Millard knows the difference between aging at home and in an assisted-living facility. She and her husband tried out such an institution for two months before they returned to their home of more than 30 years.
“Hey squirrels, come on, it’s lunch time,” Millard calls out one chilly December day. “Where’s my lunch bunch? I give them black oil sunflower seeds and apple cores.”
Millard is 77 and loves her big yard in Boise’s North End. This is where she tends vegetables and feeds her favorite neighborhood squirrels. Her husband Steve used to help out, but then his Parkinson’s disease and dementia deepened. So she called Boise at Home.
“They cleaned up here, the pathways and along the edges,” she says, as she gives a tour of her wintry yard. Volunteers “raked the leaves and took out weeds, clipped some of the weeds, lots of the stuff that needed to be done around the edges.”
But Millard now has to do these chores herself since the organization ran out of money. The membership fees only covered a fraction costs for a director and handyman and competition is fierce in Idaho for donations and foundation funding.
That’s because the need is so great, as Boise at Home’s Diane Ronayne explains: “You take an old person and you take a homeless person and try to compare the two ... it’s hard to justify for those foundations giving money to people who already were in their homes when there were so many people who weren’t in a home.”
Ronayne and the group’s aging members hope the service can be revived. Similar organizations are flourishing in 200 or more cities around the country. But it’s too soon to tell.
What is certain, though, is that a big gap was left when Boise at Home shut down. And the need for such services is only going to grow as the Treasure Valley continues to grow grayer.
Find reporter Maria La Ganga on Twitter @marialaganga
Copyright 2017 Boise State Public Radio.