A ‘village’ born of acceptance, engagement and an eye on the future

To Steve Lustig, a recently retired UC Berkeley administrator and Free Speech Movement veteran, Ashby Village is a logical next step in a life steeped in community activism and health- and eldercare leadership. A vigorous 66, he’s devoted to finding ways to extend members’ reach to needed services and resources, from negotiating price discounts to bringing new agencies into the village’s network. The main benefit of belonging, thus far, has been the time and energy he invests.

“I’m very involved in the community aspect of it,” explains Lustig, who was associate vice chancellor for health and human services when he ended his 26-year campus career. “For me, it’s being engaged with a lot of very smart people, trying to figure out what we want our community to look like as we get older.”

Herb Strauss, 75, an emeritus chemistry professor at Berkeley, joined the group two years ago, prompted by declining health, the logistics of maintaining an active social life off-campus and the need for help with “things around the house that we used to do without thinking.”

Ask him what he’s gotten from Ashby Village, though, and he cites the morning last spring when doctors told him he needed emergency surgery. His wife, exhausted from a day of worrying at the hospital, finally “couldn’t take it anymore,” and found herself alone and anxiously climbing the walls of their Berkeley home. She called executive director Andy Gaines, and before long a couple she’d never met from Ashby Village drove her back to the hospital and waited there with her for several hours, taking her home again once word came that Strauss would be released the next day.

“Sometimes,” he says, “you might just need someone to listen to you.”

Like its sister villages across the country, Ashby Village is a work in progress. Not surprisingly, though, its roots in Berkeley and on campus lend it a distinctly grassroots character. For some, the village offers a second chance — or even a third or fourth — not just to be a part of a vital community as they grow older, but to help create one.

“I think the challenge is to find creative ways to make use of what’s available,” says psychologist Joan Cole, a longtime community organizer who served stints at Berkeley as a postgrad and faculty member. “There are all kinds of obvious things, like transportation or having meals prepared. But I’m interested in using the village in creative ways.”

Cole wasn’t sure what to expect when she and her husband, Bob, joined. What she found was completely unexpected — “a marvelous young woman” to help her frail, 89-year-old husband, who suffers from dementia, complete a memoir. “It felt,” she says, “like a little miracle.”

Herb Strauss and Joan Cole

Herb Strauss and Joan Cole (Yasmin Anwar photo)

On Thursday evenings, when Cole, 82, sings in a local choir, volunteers come to the house for regular “movie nights” with her husband.

And then there’s Bob Forthman, who can’t imagine where he’d be without Ashby Village. Forthman, who earned his doctorate in social welfare at Berkeley in 1970, retired in 1987 from a career as a social worker and teacher at what was then Hayward State University. He and his wife, Lynn, had been active as volunteers ever since, with a focus on seniors, and figured to offer their time and expertise to members of Ashby Village.

In August 2010, Lynn was struck by a hit-and-run driver while driving herself to a beauty appointment on San Pablo Avenue. She died several weeks afterward. For Forthman, now 86, Ashby Village was crucial in guiding him through that horrific experience — helping with everything from medical advocacy and in-home care for her to emotional and practical support for him — and continues to provide “a lifeline” to friends, community and “the world beyond this building.”

“Losing my wife was the great shock of my life,” he says, seated in a comfortable chair in his new Dana Street condo. (The house he shared with Lynn, which was rebuilt after the 1991 Oakland hills fire, is up for sale.) Ashby Village, he continues, has “given me a supportive base. It’s given me an anchor. It’s given me friends, opportunities and a sense of being able to still make some input into creative processes. Because when my wife passed away, I really wondered if I was going to be able to function, period.”

His new community, concludes Forthman, has been “a hopeful thought for the future.”

Others share that sentiment, even if their stories are less dramatic.  

Sondra Jensen came to Berkeley as a student in 1959 and retired as director of administrative services nine years ago at the age of 60. She pivoted from a career on campus to a new one as the owner of a local moving company, Smooth Moves, which keeps her in close contact with seniors in need of assisted-living arrangements. In some cases, she believes, Ashby Village might be a better solution.

Jensen signed up with her husband as charter members almost two years ago. They joined, she says, “not so much because we felt we needed help at the time,” but more “in support of the concept.”

Still, with her husband confined to a wheelchair after a spinal-cord injury, “the writing is on the wall,” she adds. “We will need help when I can no longer do what I now do for him.”

Cole, for her part, admits to surprise at how involved she’s become as a volunteer “at this late time in my life, when I’ve got so much on my plate.”

“I’m up to my eyeballs in Ashby Village,” she declares. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Jensen and Cole are among those who’ve hosted parties for fellow villagers, one way to promote the group’s social benefits. Forthman particularly remembers last year’s Christmas party, where a board member exhorted attendees to “eat, drink and be merry” — to which Forthman added, “because tomorrow you may die.”

“To many people that’s morbid,” he concedes. “It’s not morbid to me because I know it’s coming, and I say, well, if it’s coming, let’s prepare for it.”

At Ashby Village, acknowledging mortality brings with it a commitment to fuller, more engaged lives.

“My son-in-law worded it nicely — he said isn’t that great, a bunch of people taking control of their lives as they’re aging,” recalls Lustig. “It’s invigorating, and that’s what I’m interested in, the vibrancy of it all.”