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Updated: March 11, 2013 11:08AM



A grassroots effort in the greater Bell School/St. Ben’s neighborhood gives senior citizens online resources to help them stay in their homes, even as local home values skyrocket.

The effort is based on the Village to Village Network concept in which 89 communities nationwide have set up websites to help people “take aging into their own hands.” The Village to Village Network usually requires an initiation fee for members.

The local project, named “Forward Chicago,” differs in a key aspect: It’s free.

The website is at ForwardChicago.org.

A Senior Council in 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar’s office organized the effort to give seniors a new way to build a community.

“As people grow older, their world shrinks — they have fewer people in their lives,” said founding member Karen Kolb Flude, a private-practice gerontologist. “We asked, ‘How do we help older people be as engaged, involved and influential as they have been their whole lives?’”

Seniors involved in an active social network find it more natural to seek support than those who have to grasp for it alone in emergencies, Kolb Flude said.

The effort coincides with young families moving into the neighborhood to take advantage of its easy access to transportation, the Loop and good schools. In one instance, an affluent young couple knocked down an older house they bought for $250,000 and built a new one valued at $1.25 million.

“What happens to the elderly couple next door?” said Kolb Flude, referring to the resulting increase in home values.

Forward Chicago also aims to help small businesses grow by recognizing seniors’ purchasing power, Kolb Flude said.

It’s a natural audience for locally owned businesses, partly because so many seniors are left out of online daily-deal offers, she said.

“A store might put a chair in its showroom in case they get tired, but it’s also a good and welcome idea for a woman who is pregnant or someone with a bad back,” Flude said.

Helene Wineberg, another founding member, said Forward Chicago has started working with the Chicago Public Library and local community centers to offer affordable computer training to further the network.

“It’s a grassroots effort,” Wineberg said.

Jordan Mann, a founding member and website manager, said the site is designed to scale on the fly with smartphones, tablets or e-readers, and the type is large so it is easily readable.

“The site architecture is built so that residents can constantly update it on their own,” said Mann, who writes lyrics for musicals.

Bloggers are already keeping the network current.

Jean Anderson, 72, calls herself “the accidental blogger” because she just wanted to share information, and offered her writeups of local events to the site.

Soon, she was blogging about health-care resources and events that neighbors might enjoy.

Her blog posts describe the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s performance at the Chicago Park District’s Revere Park at Irving and Western avenues, and a caregivers’ conference at Northwestern Hospital sponsored by the National Parkinson’s Foundation.

Anderson’s husband, Richard, 73, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s two years ago. The couple moved in January to an apartment near Lawrence and Western from their two-flat in the North Center neighborhood.

The couple moved within a 10-minute drive of their home of 14-and-a-half years because they want to stay in the area.

“We have a wonderful network of neighbors and friends,” Jean Anderson said. “There are so many considerations with finances and health as to what you can maintain as you age.”

That’s where the Forward Chicago website hopes to fill in voids, not only about resources but ways for seniors to share their stories and learn from one another.

Mann said one goal is to develop a social-media presence by integrating Facebook and Twitter into the website.

The online community building dovetails with research showing 41 percent of seniors and their caregivers cite email, Skype and smart phones as important products that support aging, independence and peace of mind.

The survey by VTech, a Beaverton, Ore.-based electronics designer and manufacturer, also showed that nearly a quarter (24.4 percent) of the seniors surveyed spent 31 or more hours alone each week.

Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and founder and director of the Center for Connected Health in Boston, said the Chicago network reflects today’s shift in elder care and activity to people’s homes and away from a hospital or doctor’s office.

The results are lower costs and more senior involvement, he said.

“We are excited by it,” Kvedar said. “We don’t see technology as a barrier.”

Indeed, Kvedar and several colleagues launched in February their website, Wellocracy.com, to link people with similar goals, such as controlling diabetes or losing weight.

“Online, spontaneous conversation helps people organically devise ways to help each other,” Kvedar said.

He said a key to the success of such networks is that the participants treat each other with respect and seek out new leaders in the community.



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