About 40 people, most of them seniors, gathered on the plaza outside the North Hall at Eastern Market Monday, Oct. 19. Many carried American flags and homemade signs with hand-written slogans such as “VOTE”. Most of them carried their ballots. Socially distanced, but together, they marched from the ballot dropbox located near the Market to those all over the Hill, stopping at each to hear a short story from the history of American democracy.
The event was organized by the Capitol Hill Village (CHV) Urban Walkers, part of the largely volunteer-driven community that helps Hill seniors age in place.
You might think that seniors would be sitting back and waiting for COVID-19 to pass. After all, most of the membership is at or past retirement age, in the demographic most vulnerable to the pandemic.
But if you thought that you’d be very, very wrong. CHV members are not the type to sit around and wait at any time, let alone in the middle of a national crisis. CHV has made changes in the way they offer services, activities and engagement to members. But the commitment of CHV didn’t waiver. Members simply organized, planned, adapted and kept on going.
“If you look at what these people have accomplished in their lives —where they come from, what they’ve done —this is a high-powered group, just in terms of their experience and their abilities, there’s no question,” said CHV Executive Director Judy Berman. “It’s a resource that you won’t see replicated in a lot of places across the country.”
Keeping Members Safe — and Connected
Founded in 2006, CHV aims to sustain and enrich the lives of seniors for the long term, helping to build a community that helps people age on their own terms. They do this by providing care support to members where needed, offering learning and social opportunities, and creating opportunities for civic engagement.
The organization leans heavily on volunteers, many of them members themselves. Volunteers lead the “affinity” or interest groups, help people get to the doctor or to do grocery shopping, advocate on policy and issues in the community and lead instruction sessions on topics from wellness to current affairs to technology.
When COVID-19 hit, these activities could no longer be offered in person, but CHV was determined to stay engaged with membership —and with the wider Hill community.
Berman said that reducing social isolation is one of the most important challenges to aging in place that CHV faces. Loneliness is associated with cardiac damage and cognitive decline, and it is aggravated by the very measures that older people are being told they must take to protect themselves from the virus.
“I think one of the things that COVID has exposed is sort of the underlying ageism in our culture,” Berman said. Many people believe seniors must all live together in nursing homes or assisted living, where they will have to isolate until the pandemic is over, however long that takes. ”We’re designing a world that doesn’t take our highest risk folks into account [and] is a manifestation of the ageism and ableism that COVID has exposed, just as it has also exposed racism.”
But CHV wanted to ensure every member was safe. When stay-at-home orders were issued in March, volunteers swiftly set up an emergency contact system, organizing membership into sectors based on geography. They called those on the list once a week to ensure that members had what they needed, be it toilet paper, thermometers, or groceries. They distributed PPE to home health workers to keep them safe, helping to keep members and the wider community safe in the process.
CHV consulted with Dr. Pedro Kremer, a Hill Physician and epidemiologist, to be sure they understood the risks, formulating guidelines for CHV programming and services throughout the pandemic.
“A Very Wise Decision of Mine”
Janice Brock joined CHV in January, just before the pandemic hit. “It was a very wise decision of mine,” Brock said. “It was pure luck I decided to join it in January, right before the virus.”
Brock has lived on Capitol Hill for 30 years. She is the proprietor of Janice’s Table, which imports fine European linens and sells them at markets throughout the area.
Off work one day, she took a look around the neighborhood to see who she could have coffee with and realized just how much her personal community had changed. “A lot of the people that I knew had left,” she said, “I thought, I’ve at least got to have a circle, a support group somewhere and maybe get to know other people my age.”
When the pandemic hit, Brock was in a good place. She is agile and able to get her own groceries and go outdoors for walks. Still, CHV called weekly to see how she was doing and supplied her with face masks. “It was nice to know that if anything went wrong, there was a support system there,” she said. ”If I needed someone to fix a lightbulb, I could call.”
CHV offered all sorts of support. In the spring, Brock, who has a history of jaw problems, had to have extensive dental work. With markets closed and her income curtailed, CHV gave her a $1,000 grant towards the expenses. When someone suggested that, with markets closed for the foreseeable future, Janice’s Table should branch out into online sales on Facebook Marketplace, CHV put out a call for someone to help.
Familiar with computers and smartphones, Brock was nonetheless overwhelmed at the prospect of learning a new online platform. Fifteen-year-old Nicolai Tablion, responded to the call and has been showing Brock the ropes. “This kid is so smart, and light years ahead,” Brock said.
Transitioning to Virtual Programming
As the pandemic continued, CHV began transitioning as many of its programs as possible to virtual platforms. It was a learning curve for everyone, and at first, Berman said, there was some resistance. CHV offers a host of programs, from biking and tai chi, to cooking and a board games club. As volunteer organizers grew more comfortable with the technology and limitations, they made the move online.
In September, CHV hosted a virtual inter-generational LBGTQ symposium, centering the voices and experiences across generations. “We had to learn how to do a virtual symposium,” said Berman. “We had to learn how to engage people, make them feel they were part of something when they wouldn’t be physically seeing people.”
More than 50 people attended the event, which featured conversation and dialogue from a wide variety of LGBTQ individuals on their lived experience.
CHV Advocacy Committee Chair Susan Sedgwick said that while the forms of engagement have changed as a result of the virtual format, it has neither reduced the number of members involved or their dedication. Sedgwick said she attended a lot of younger people’s Zoom meetings to get the hang of it.
“As much fun as it is to have people over to my dining room tablewe’ve switched over to the Zoom, and I think we’ve gotten pretty proficient at it,” she said.
After a lengthy series of online meetings and appearances before Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B, CHV successfully advocated for $250,000 in funding to be part of a community benefits arrangement with the developer of 1333 M St. SE, earmarking that money for an Adult Day Health Center (ADHC).
Composed of eight members, the steering committee, and an ‘advocacy core’ of about 30 members, are focused on a number of issues key to quality of life on the Hill, including more affordable housing for seniors, ensuring there are sufficient numbers of home health workers being educated to meet future need, and making recommendations to the Office of Planning on the Comprehensive Plan (CP) to be sure future development takes the needs of seniors into account.
Building Health and Connection
For a few months beginning in the summer, CHV decided to carefully resume some socially-distanced outdoor activities, and under CHV guidelines, the Capitol Hill Urban Walkers again began walking throughout the neighborhood. For participants at the Walk the Vote event, Co-Chair Mary Case ensured that participants each had a buddy with whom they exchanged emergency contact information, and a route on sidewalks and neighborhoods chosen to allow for social distancing between pairs.
For Case, the event was critical on multiple levels, for building health and connection, and participating in community and politics.
“There’s nothing more important than keeping our old bones moving, filling our lungs with fresh air and exploring our beautiful city,” said Case, “and in that way, supporting and knowing about all of the important things that are happening in this city.”
Learn more about membership, volunteering, programs and how to support Capitol Hill Village by visiting capitolhillvillage.org or by calling 202-543-1778.