Community as Family (CAF) was developed in 2014 by Wendl Kornfeld. It is an educational model designed to encourage Solo Agers to anticipate and navigate their later years more efficiently, supported by a community-based team. There is no fee for coaching and training materials for those interested in becoming facilitators. The CAF structure is adaptable for Solo Agers regardless of location and cultures.
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Community as Family is an educational and social model based on three principles: Anticipating and planning for the changes of later life; knowing how to access and use resources to maximum benefit; and creating a supportive team consisting of friends, colleagues, neighbors, and professionals.
Common Question Sparks Idea
When my friends and I—all people without adult children—were in our 50s and 60s, we often shared stories about taking care of our older parents. Inevitably, the question, “Who’s going to do all this for us?” came up and we agreed, “We’ll do it for each other!” However, a strategy was needed for this plan to become reality, thus the seeds of “Community as Family (CAF)” were sown.
In 2014 five different focus groups of “solo ager” friends met over refreshments. We discussed what we were doing (or had done) for our aging parents and then imagined if someday we’d be needing similar help for ourselves. If not, why did we think our circumstances would be different? If we did envision needing support, what was our plan? Almost no one had one; it was difficult to imagine ourselves being older or needing help, or maybe it was just too intimidating to think about. Participants left the meetings with basic forms and ideas to get the planning started and agreed they were relieved to find they weren’t alone in their apprehension about getting older without family help. They now understood the urgency of completing critical documents, keeping emergency information like contacts and important medical conditions on the refrigerator and in wallet cards, locating public resources, and building a personal support network.
Community as Family Finds its First Home
Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich suggested bringing the focus-group model (subsequently named Community as Family) to Congregation Emanu-El in New York City. Single and coupled congregants ranging in age from late 40s to early 80s attended the first meeting in December 2014. The group has grown and has been meeting monthly ever since. Pre-COVID meetings included a light dinner at the temple; now meetings are via Zoom. A monthly newsletter is emailed to all CAF members, which includes a summary of the most recent meeting with links to relevant websites.
A current member of the Emanu-El group reported, “CAF has provided a wonderful—and probably unique—combination of fellowship, fun, support, and extremely useful information. I joined the synagogue partially in order to become a member of this group. Timely topics are invariably presented and suggestions of additional topics are encouraged and well-received. I don’t know how I ever managed without it!”
Almost no one had a plan; it was difficult to imagine ourselves being older or needing help, or maybe it was just too intimidating to think about.
Said Rabbi Ehrlich, “Our framework of monthly meetings focuses on articles of interest to our demographic, with a special emphasis on health, wellness, and vitality as well as pointing out things like the latest pervasive scams. Sharing information is a wonderful way to connect, break the ice, and continue to deepen a friendship. CAF has made it more comfortable for Solo Agers to participate in many temple activities, from worship to lectures to helping-hands projects, for the simple reason that they ‘feel seen,’ which is a welcome and often rare affirmation in our demographic.”
Relationships Form and Thrive
Many friendships have formed over the years, with members enjoying meals and cultural activities. They act as healthcare proxies for one another; volunteer, sit shiva, and attend services together. They pick up fellow members after medical procedures, share employment leads, help find new housing, or keep a set of keys for one another. One CAF member, who died a few years ago, had diligently implemented many of the CAF recommendations. She completed her essential documents, and arranged her end-of-life wishes. She was relieved to have made preparations that would give her and her survivors peace of mind.
CAF Spreads Its Wings
Community as Family has been widely publicized, including via a YouTube interview with solo aging pioneer Carol Marak; a LiveOnNY event at the New York Academy of Medicine; appearances at several New York City community-based organizations; and articles in blogs and newsletters. Every inquiry from individuals or other groups begins with a phone or Zoom interview to see how CAF might be adapted to work in their location and culture, with continuing consults as needed.
Organizations are encouraged to choose a name for themselves. RSS, a senior center in the Bronx, NY, calls its group “The Savvy Solos Club.” Margie Schustack, director of communications & programs at RSS Center for Ageless Living explains, “[We] found that there was a need to focus on individuals living alone. It started with a presentation to a large group in 2018 and then a smaller group began to meet regularly. The group provides support in developing a successful lifestyle for living alone through peer support, resources, and socialization. The pandemic caused a great deal of isolation, therefore, RSS continued Savvy Solos on Zoom to maintain connection with each other. Many felt it was a vital connection that kept them going through the pandemic. Presently the Club is offered in a hybrid model—with some people on Zoom and others in our Center. It continues to bring new participants to the group and remains a core part of RSS's overall program.”
CAF Is Inclusive and Adaptable
Judith Ribnick, LCSW, MA, is director of Aging Together at the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in NYC and notes, “I was hired by CBST—the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue—to create an Aging Together program to support isolated and older congregants through and beyond the pandemic. I immediately reached out [to Temple Emanu-El] to see how I could adapt their CAF structure for our community of over 1,000 individuals. Currently, Aging Together offers monthly presentations on pertinent topics, with relevant resources and a chance to meet one another in breakout groups. We also offer bimonthly ‘Aging Together—Solos’ meetups, as well as one-to-one telephone reassurance buddies, advance-care planning, a weekly socialization group, a quarterly newsletter, and case assistance provided by the director, who is a social worker.”
CAF Promotes Self-advocacy and Sociability
Meetings provide a way for people to see one another regularly, leading to supportive friendships. The educational component of CAF promotes self-advocacy through locating resources and understanding how to use them correctly. Forms and procedures are provided for organizing a medical history and a “household handbook,” a snapshot of how someone’s life is structured and runs, including passwords, memberships, serial numbers, document location, and much more.
‘Organizations would do well to provide specially designed outreach to solo ager men.’
Community as Family can adapt to city or suburban environments and need not be connected to a spiritual center. The model can easily be adapted to small groups of friends or neighbors. While virtual meetings are worthwhile, there is a great benefit to having a comfortable, easily accessible physical space to meet, perhaps with refreshments, especially with the technical capability to present the meetings on a hybrid platform.
The Importance of Strong Facilitation
A strong facilitator is critically important, to keep the meetings focused and to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak and be heard respectfully. Confidentiality should be stressed, and some groups may decide to avoid politics unless the discussion is focused on how new or pending laws and bills will affect them directly. The facilitator, ideally, is a solo ager so they can speak from experience and empathize more closely. If there is a budget for professional speakers, or if pro bono speakers can be found, this will add value to the meetings.
Not Every Group Succeeds
No one size, format, or methodology is a good fit for every community. For example, getting to a meeting place in an urban setting by local transportation can be relatively easy. But in a car-centric community, getting to a meeting is difficult for those who no longer drive or have no one to drive them. A group may fail to thrive by not reaching consensus about its purpose, expectations, and goals. One faith community in New Jersey had more than 40 people show up for the first meeting but strayed from the basic tenets of CAF. They tried (unsuccessfully) to accommodate too wide a variety of preferences. Some people hoped to learn how to be more proactive life planners, while others envisioned the group would be an immediate source of practical help for home and garden maintenance.
A Call for More Diverse Growth
Community as Family welcomes inquiries from a wide palette of cultures and faiths, especially those that have traditionally relied upon family members to provide care and housing. Facilitator coaching and starter forms are offered at no charge, as are the consultations. The solo aging demographic is not restricted just to the United States. In 2018, Community as Family was honored to make a PowerPoint presentation to an international audience at a meeting of about 50 people at the Committee for the Ageing at the New York United Nations headquarters. A representative from one African nation declared she was going home to introduce the principles of CAF to her tribe.
While CAF principles focus on individual self-empowerment through knowledge and social connections, Solo Agers also need strong institutional partners. Some progress has been made: The Davis Financial Group in Hadley, MA, publishes “The Soloist” newsletter, and financial gerontology is an established field that addresses lifelong wealth-span issues, but there is so much more that could be adapted for Solo Agers. Suprenant and Beneski in New Bedford, MA, is a law firm focused on serving the needs of single elders. We hope more firms will follow suit. And actions the medical community might take to better serve Solo Agers could fill another article.
While women seem to more naturally seek out and connect for friendship and advice, men need community just as much—especially if they previously relied upon spouses or partners to organize their home lives and social connections. Organizations would do well to provide specially designed outreach to solo ager men and offer activities that are project-driven as well as social.
What professionals and lay leaders working with Solo Agers are doing now inspires thinking and planning for those future generations who will age into a world we cannot yet imagine.
A December 5, 2022, New York Times article written by Paula Span, “Who Will Care for 'Kinless' Seniors?” concluded with this caveat for future generations of solos: “However governments, community organizations and health care systems begin to address the issue, there’s little time to waste. Projections indicate that kinlessness will increase greatly as the population cohorts that follow behind the baby boom age.”
Quoting sociologist Susan Brown, the article stated, “Younger people are less likely to marry and have children, and they have fewer siblings … How will they navigate health declines? We don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure people are paying attention.”
For more information on Community as Family, contact Wendl Kornfeld at email@example.com.
Wendl Kornfeld (she/her) is a volunteer chair in the Community as Family model at the Congregation Emanu-El in New York, NY.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/IndianFaces