Thwarting loneliness epidemic, SF Village creates intergenerational ties

‘There is a need for love and there is a need for mattering’

When Allison Sponseller was moving from Michigan to start a new job and life here six years ago, she felt pangs of grief as her grandparents were also leaving their longtime home, headed for assisted living.

“It was really hard for me to move away at that moment,” she said. “Here I was meeting a lot of younger people, people in the tech industry and the culture was really homogenous. In Michigan the communities are more intergenerational.”

Seeking opportunities to connect to like-minded individuals with a range of experience, Sponseller volunteered with San Francisco Village and has since made a friend: Betsy Bannerman is one of over 400 older adult members of the Village’s citywide support network.

“Allison listens when I tell her stories,” said Bannerman. ‘Though she’s half my age, we share interests. We were both English majors. She noticed my Scrabble board and asked if I played. I said yes, next time you come, let’s do that.”

San Francisco Village is part of the nationwide Village Movement, which provides home services and outside experiences for people 60-plus who wish to age in place. Its local office is helmed by a small staff representing Boomers through Generation Z, and more than 200 volunteers of all ages.

“We assume older adults are the most isolated and lonely, but it’s not the case,” said Kate Hoepke, S.F. Village’s executive director. “Gen Z and Millennials report higher levels of loneliness and isolation than the Boomer and Silent generations,” she said. Referring to any number of recently published studies before and during the pandemic, young adults are reporting fewer friends and acquaintances and a disquieting dissatisfaction with relationships and social interactions.

“It might be technology, relocation and the world we live in,” Hoepke ventured, “But there is a need for love and there is a need for mattering. People are feeling so disoriented, that sense of belonging is so uprooted right now. To say, ‘I made a difference in someone’s life today and it’s OK for them to make a difference in my life today,’ that’s huge. I wouldn’t know how to quantify it.”

Gathered around a conference table, Village staffers offer example upon example of meaningful connections while a tai chi class convenes on the other side of the glass.

“Our meditation teacher taught us how to use Zoom and as our members learned to use it, they trained each other,” explained program coordinator Sarah Brigid Newsham Kent, resident Millennial at S.F. Village.

“Members started to meet with each other more often. Our LGBT group had been meeting monthly and now meets weekly,” said Newsham Kent. The popular intergenerational discussion series she coordinates includes topical concerns from gender pronouns and anti-racism to environmental justice.

“Members love our staff and the fact they’re young,” said Hoepke. “For our elders, there’s a sense the world is changing so fast, they can’t keep up with it. Younger people want to know how to make sense of what’s happening. They want to connect with someone who seems to have endured.”

Before she came to direct San Francisco Village still in its infancy in 2012, Hoepke achieved an MBA at age 55 after working in the aging field at San Francisco Towers.

“It’s really for the top tier of wealth. That isn’t where the majority of people are,” she said of The City’s aging population. Arriving at the Village, she recognized an opportunity.

“With intention, effort and investment, we could build something, an infrastructure for social care,” said Hoepke. “Social care is never addressed in the health care world. If you and your family can’t get your needs met, you’re out of luck. We’re developing a system to meet people’s needs.”

Jill Ellefsen is a Gen Xer who came to the Village through the volunteer program and ended up becoming its coordinator.

“I was a caregiver and hospice worker and went for a master’s in gerontology. Learning about the Village concept really resonated with me,” she said. Ellefsen has no shortage of stories of intergenerational connections and the benefits received among the people she pairs, but the instant connection between Sponseller and Bannerman stands out.

“I was having knee replacement and knew I needed help,” said Bannerman, 80. “I don’t drive and with the pandemic closing down the bus runs, I wasn’t able to get to shops or walk well.” Though Bannerman appreciated the volunteers the Village organized, when Sponseller showed up, it was different.

“She was immediately interested in things, the pictures on my wall and refrigerator,” said Bannerman.

“The connection felt easy and natural,” said Sponseller, 36, who works as a consultant to nonprofit agencies, lives in the Haight, and travels to Bannerman’s home in the Mission once a week.

“On my second visit my partner came with me and we ended up staying for dinner,” she said. “I wish we lived closer.”

“We’re glad to be able to dispel the myths that all old people are like this and all young people are like that,” said Hoepke. “Intergenerational community building is the future. We need to find ways to come together to solve big problems.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com. More at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan.

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