KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This week we've been hearing about how older Americans are staying independent thanks to an idea called a village. These are local membership organizations that help older adults stay in their homes by connecting them to the services they need. And we've heard about how this works in cities where it's relatively easy to find these services. But what about rural areas? NPR's Ina Jaffe went to the mountains of Plumas County, Calif., to find out.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Plumas County is in northeastern California. It's the size of Connecticut with a population just around 19,000 people. There's no interstate highway, not a lot of chain stores, hardly any stoplights - just a lot of pine trees.
JIMMIE ONEAL: When you live out here, you kind of have to be ready for the winter.
JAFFE: That's 75-year-old Jimmie Oneal. On this late autumn afternoon, there are a handful of volunteers helping her get ready for winter.
ONEAL: There's firewood in there. And what I'd like - as much as you can - is I'd like it up on the back deck. And I'll show you where it goes.
JAFFE: That firewood will help Oneal heat her home. She lives alone in a little dome house on a heavily wooded acre of land that slopes down to a creek. Both Oneal and the volunteers helping her are members of the Plumas County village which is known as Community Connections.
ONEAL: You guys are miracle workers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're going to use our wagon here to haul wood now.
ONEAL: OK, great.
JAFFE: Members of Community Connections get credits for helping each other. Then when they need some help themselves, they draw on those credits. It's a model known as a time bank. Since Oneal's husband died eight years ago, she's needed this kind of help to stay in her home. Still, she's had to make some changes. She gave up her chickens.
ONEAL: Because I was having to carry buckets of water down that hill in the wintertime. And it gets real icy. And I finally decided that, you know, one bad fall could be real bad news for me, so I decided to find homes for my chickens. And I still miss them.
JAFFE: If Oneal had a bad fall, her options in Plumas County would be limited. There's only one assisted living facility. It can accept just four residents. There are no vacancies - same for the two small nursing homes. So around here, keeping seniors living independently isn't just a matter of what they want. It's almost the only option. And Oneal says she has her own way of giving back for the help she receives from Community Connections.
ONEAL: I guess you could say I'm sort of like a granny (laughter). People come to me with all kinds of questions about gardening, about chickens, about trees, about how to survive with the cold, especially people who haven't been here that long.
JAFFE: Community Connections is run by Plumas Rural Services, a large nonprofit social services agency. Dues are just 10 bucks a year. Anyone can join.
LESLIE WALL: My youngest member is currently 7, and our oldest member is 93.
JAFFE: That's Leslie Wall, who's run Community Connections since it started 10 years ago. Back then, she wanted to find out what older people wanted from the program.
WALL: We expected seniors would want transportation and they would want visitors and someone to call them weekly. And what we found was the greatest need of our seniors was to be needed. We have seniors who want things to do that are vital, that matter, that make a difference.
JAFFE: Seventy-seven-year-old Pat Evans makes a difference to Karon Chance.
KARON CHANCE: I brought this, Pat, and I'm not sure if you're going to be able to help me with it. And this might be...
JAFFE: Chance has brought Evans a cherished old quilt. The back is shredded, and she hopes Evans can use her talents as a seamstress to fix it - no problem.
PAT EVANS: It can be attached to here.
CHANCE: Uh-huh (ph).
EVANS: And stitched on either by a machine or by hand. And then...
JAFFE: Pat Evans has been sewing since she was 10 years old - made her own clothes, her wedding dress, her late husband's sport coats, her kids' clothes. Now she lives alone and sews for her fellow members of Community Connections. Karon Chance says that's benefitted both of them in ways they hadn't planned.
CHANCE: Sometimes we just catch up and talk and talk about the dog and about the flowers. And we just talk about the - so the whole idea is that Pat and I might have never crossed paths at some time if it hadn't been for Community Connections. And now I've made a friend.
JAFFE: An unexpected dividend of credits in the time bank. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE M.G.'S "GREEN ONIONS")
MCEVERS: And you can find more of Ina's reporting on the village movement at npr.org.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Plumas County, Calif., is the size of Connecticut. It is actually about half that area.]
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE M.G.'S "GREEN ONIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.