Westside Pacific Villages cares for seniors during the pandemic

By Elizabeth M. Johnson

Westside Pacific Villages (WPV) is a local nonprofit that focuses on supporting older adults with services that allow them to remain active and safe in their own homes. Courtesy of Westside Pacific Villages

A local nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing loneliness and helping seniors age in place is continuing its mission during the pandemic by finding new ways to serve this vulnerable population.

For 10 years, Westside Pacific Villages (WPV) has focused on supporting older adults with services that allow them to remain active and safe in their own homes. The organization serves residents of Westchester, Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Culver City, Ladera Heights, El Segundo, Mar Vista and surrounding communities.

According to Carol Kitabayashi, executive director of WPV, the “village” is not a physical entity, but a network of individual volunteers, schools, churches and businesses.

“We’re not a caregiving agency,” Kitabayashi said. “Our goal is to make it easier for older adults to stay in their homes by helping them to do things that may be hard for them. That could be getting a ride to the hairdresser, grocery store or a doctor’s appointment; taking the trash bins to the curb, changing a light bulb or navigating the LA Metro for a group field trip.”

With volunteers ranging from moms, kids and college students to club and fraternal organization members, WPV has been providing seniors with intergenerational interactions including monthly face-to-face visits and in-person activities like crafts, games and educational events. That all changed last March.

“When COVID-19 hit, we had to cancel our transportation services, in-person events and physical visits with members,” Kitabayashi explained. “But we were poised and ready to meet the new needs of the seniors we serve.”

Instead of personal visits, WPV began weekly “call a neighbor” phone check-ins. Instead of taking seniors to the store, volunteers began delivering groceries, taking care to maintain social distancing.

Pre-pandemic, WPV charged $700 for an annual membership (mostly to cover transportation costs for its volunteers). That fee has been waived during the pandemic. Kitabayashi said they can provide continued programming thanks to grants from places like Cedars-Sinai Hospital, financial support from family foundations, and donations from businesses and individuals.

WPV CARES (COVID-19 Action Response for Elder Support) program was established in March 2020 and will remain free throughout the pandemic. In addition to phone calls and grocery delivery, WPV CARES provides technology training so seniors can have online chats with family and friends. The organization has also started offering virtual activities such as a book club, yoga, exercise classes, painting, and a “tea and chat.”

Recently, WPV also received a $50,000 Capacity Building & Expansion grant from Cedars-Sinai to support outreach for WPV CARES. The grant allows WPV to continue its ongoing mission of assisting seniors throughout the pandemic and
to expand services into underserved neighborhoods that lack resources.

Another highlight is a weekly delivery to WPV members that started when the pandemic shutdown forced the local Rotary Club to cancel its weekly luncheon meeting.

“Last March, I got a call from the Rotary Club,” Kitabayashi said. “They had 35 box lunches that had been ordered for their weekly meeting. They hoped we could do something with them, so we delivered them to 35 of our members. The same thing happened the following week. By April 1, we had developed a weekly Friday delivery to our members — it might be a meal, flowers, cards, masks, hand sanitizer or goody bags. We added handouts like meditations, wellness at home tips, word searches, trivia and directions for chair exercises.”

With proper precautions, WPV volunteers can deliver some much-needed social contact along with their weekly treats.

“We’ve had seniors tell us that they get giddy on Thursday because they know on Friday they’ll get a visit,” Kitabayashi said.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, WPV has added another service: helping seniors schedule their vaccination appointments and providing rides to vaccination sites.

Kitabayashi noted that the organization’s membership has doubled during the pandemic from 100 to 200 seniors. The group’s volunteer pool has also increased from 150 to 300 volunteers, who are vetted and trained to provide assistance safely and in compliance with LA County’s Safer at Home Order.

During the pandemic, WPV even found a way to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a virtual celebration in December. Hosted by “LA’s Hometown Doctor,” pulmonary specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, the hour-long Zoom party highlighted the work done by the group in the past decade: 75,000 hours of service by 1,500 volunteers.

“We had never had a big party before and weren’t sure what to expect because of COVID-19, but our virtual celebration was awesome,” Kitabayashi said. “People were very engaged, we shared experiences and people got teary-eyed.”

WPV began as Westchester Playa Village when it was founded by local resident Pat Brubaker 10 years ago. As the village grew, the name changed from Westchester Playa Village to Westside Pacific Villages, keeping the same initials. The organization is part of the national Village to Village Network, which includes more than 250 independent “villages” throughout the United States.

Kitabayashi has been involved with WPV for nine of its 10 years – first as a volunteer, then as a part-time office worker, and now as executive director. Recently she was named Citizen of the Year by the Westchester Rotary Club. She is a firm believer in the village model and feels that the concept is especially viable as a way to reach vulnerable community members during the pandemic.

“The pandemic was a blessing in disguise,” Kitabayashi said. “This pandemic has shined a light on the needs of our older population. Even after the pandemic, there will be seniors who are isolated and alone, who need our help, who need the connections we can provide. It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to keep our seniors healthy and vibrant.”