Banking on being partners

Japanese delegation visits Severna Park to learn about service program for seniors


It was the end of the afternoon at Partners in Care in Severna Park, where a dozen Japanese social workers and business people were learning about its innovative program that allows seniors to borrow and "bank" services.

Clad in navy blue and black suits, the nearly all-male delegation peppered the staff with questions on how to replicate the program in Japan.

What broke the ice was the visit next door to the nonprofit agency's thrift store, run by senior volunteers. The delegation head donned a $24 brown leather jacket and an $8 cowboy hat. His tanned face stretched into a broad grin, Nagakatsu Omatsu drew laughter and headed to the cashier.

In a nod to the program's success, the Japanese team was the second one touring the offices and thrift shop in a week; development director Anne Myers will be hosting a group from San Antonio on Monday.

"It used to be a little obscure, a little abstract, but it's starting to become a little more mainstream," she said.

Launched 15 years ago, Partners in Care offered one of the banks in the U.S., Myers said. Volunteers donate their time and earn credit that can be used to receive other services.

For example, a volunteer at the store, called the Boutique, could borrow the services of another member to fix a leaky pipe. Someone who needs a ride to the doctor could donate clothes to the Partners in Care store as payment or donate money for gas.

"If they get a ride to the doctor's, they don't feel bad because they get to offer a service," said Myers.

Those who have nothing to offer are not turned away. Other members can donate their hours to "pay" for that person.

Barbara Huston, the chief executive officer and another co-founder, explained that there were 2,400 members in the program. About 1,600 are too fragile to offer much in return for their services, she said. The rest are made up of volunteers of all ages, including schoolchildren who rake leaves or shovel snow to fulfill community service requirements.

Each member is interviewed carefully about their skills and hobbies, despite their age. No talent is overlooked. One 88-year-old woman addresses the birthday cards that are sent out to members throughout the year. An 86-year-old woman runs the Boutique, which provides a third of the income for the Partners in Care program.

Children in Japan and other Asian countries have a strong tradition of caring for elderly parents. In rural areas, the elderly often live with their families. But the Japanese are becoming more mobile, and children don't always live as close to their parents as they used to, said Masako Kubota, who has worked with labor banks in Japan and served as a translator for the trip.

"They are worrying about their retirees," she said. Japan operates a similar service-exchange system where people donate services to labor banks and receive tokens known as dan-dan to spend in thrift stores. Dan-dan means thank you in Japanese. But the banks are often one-sided - many seniors do not feel comfortable taking services without giving, said Kubota.

Kubota, who lives in Miami, had worked with Maureen Cavaiola, another Partners in Care founder, on national and international time-banking conferences and boards. Kubota contacted her to coordinate the visit, which included a stop at Anne Arundel Community College to learn about noncredit courses for seniors and about training for those who work with the elderly.

The group of nine men and three women sat in a circle at the cramped Partners in Care office in Severna Park. One delegate carried a video camera in one hand and occasionally snapped photos with a digital camera in the other.

The boutique was a particular hit among the delegates because it had such a variety of items at reasonable prices. In Japan, "recycle" shops often sell designer items, and they're too expensive even at a discount, Kubota said.

Omatsu's colleagues needled him afterward for buying clothing for himself. Nearly everyone had bought gifts for others, including one official who bought a Winnie-the-Pooh doll as a show of support for the tour bus driver. The delegation arrived an hour late to Partners in Care because the driver had gotten lost.

Takanori Takada, assistant director of the Chuo Labor Bank, bought a jewelry box. He said he planned to stop at Tiffany & Co. in New York City to find something to put in it for his wife, a comment that drew laughs from the rest of the group.

Takada told Myers and other staff members that he planned to replicate Partners in Care in his community.

"Your system is excellent," Takada said.

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