Network Helps Folks Enjoy the Holidays

Laughter and holiday cheer prevail at the Senior Network's afternoon celebration. The group's goals include bettering the lives of seniors in the neighborhood and ensuring that they can remain in their homes. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Cliff Donley prefaces most of his remarks with a bit of humor. So it’s not surprising that he announced his plan for what would become San Mateo Highlands’ Senior Network like so:

“We hold this truth to be self-evident: that most seniors would prefer to continue living in their own homes as long as possible.”

That was 11 years ago and Cliff, an original owner in Joe Eichler’s tract high in the hills above San Mateo, was pushing 80 – and neither he nor his wife Pat wanted to leave the Highlands because of difficulty getting around, or any other difficulty.

The Senior Network remains an exemplary group, and one that could be replicated in other neighborhoods. Although the Network is not an official program of the Highlands’ recreation center, there is much cooperation between the two.

There are about 80 members. “The dues are zero,” Cliff says, “and we are going to double them next year.”

“I wanted to fly airplanes. It was the only thing I did. Anything else I did I had to," Dave Campbell says.

“The idea is to allow for seniors to stay in their homes as they age,” says Jeff Schwartz, one of the center’s recreation supervisors, a man beloved by the seniors.

The network helps seniors with transportation, shopping for groceries, doctors’ appointments, and more. Many no longer drive, and one of the charms of the Highlands – its relative remoteness – add to the difficulty of getting around.

Inspiration for the network was Beacon Hill Village, a program to help seniors remain at home that started in Boston in 1999 and has spread internationally. The senior network there is not officially tied to the Village Movement.

The Highlands network’s main value for many, says Trudie Huygen, who has lived here since since 1957, is social. “That is the point,” she says, at the Holiday potluck the group put on two weeks before Christmas at Cliff and Pat’s house.

Forty-plus people, mostly active members, attended and enjoyed great food and greater company. The party was open to all Highlanders, announced in the neighborhood's newsletter, the Lowdown.

Jeff Schwartz enjoying the party with Jean and Fred Leonard.

Several people there could have been professional entertainers -- Fred Leonard in Santa hat with quick repartee; Dave Campbell, the storyteller of the bunch, a man not afraid to brag.

“I’ve flown airplanes and I’ve been in the Highlands for 900 years,” says Dave, who, during the war, had flown bombers in the South Pacific. “I was considered by experts to be the best pilot in the world. Pan Am was the best airline, and I was the best of their pilots. I wouldn’t lie to you.”

Besides that, Dianne Weitzel notes, Dave was a fine surfer.

Julie Porter is a relative newcomer to the network. The holiday party was her third network event. The first two were a discussion led by the League of Women Voters about ballot measures on last November's ballot. The other was a lively discussion with Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Julie’s lived in the Highlands since 1987, and joined to meet  people.

Trudie Huygen, who sends out event and other notices for the network, says she used to meet neighbors through her children and schools. Now the network serves that function.

One of the most popular guys at the party was also the youngest, Jeff Schwartz. Although he doesn’t live in the Highlands, his dedication to the seniors makes him one of them.

“He has to please old guys like me,” says Fred, whose house overlooks the recreation center tennis courts, “and the younger computer set.”

Cliff and Pat Donley at the Christmas tree in their Eichler home.

“[Jeff] gets a lot of guff from his tennis players, but he handles it,” Fred says. “And he’s always there to help.”

“We have a neighborhood here where people are so attuned to each other, both young and old,” Jeff says. He often matches younger people who can do chores with older people who cannot. “I know people’s skill sets. I have matched seniors with boy scout and girl scout groups.”

Dianne Weitzel, who cared for her late husband when he suffered from dementia, studied caregiving, and leads the health and safety committee of the network.

She drives people to medical appointments, helps them find paid caregivers, and more. She will attend medical appointments with some of the members. “Let’s clarify this again,” she will ask the doctor. “Let’s make sure [the patient] understands exactly.”

The social activities and trips sponsored by the network are very important, she adds. “To be locked in your house and not be able to go anyplace, that’s boring.”

 “We just do whatever they ask us for,” Dianne says of people who need care. “Sometimes people are reluctant to ask for help.”

“If you need help or have a neighbor who needs help, call me,” she says.

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