Sara LeMesh and her pianist Allegra Chapman perform a program of classical music at a recent AyudaCare event. (Photo/Courtesy Sara LeMesh)
Sara LeMesh and her pianist Allegra Chapman perform a program of classical music at a recent AyudaCare event. (Photo/Courtesy Sara LeMesh)

‘Ayuda’ for seniors can trace its roots to Mitzvah Days

Looking for senior-friendly activities in the Bay Area that all family members, caregivers or friends — no matter their age — can also enjoy?

Ayuda Care, founded in San Francisco earlier this year, aims to provide that.

Co-founders Sara LeMesh, the CEO, and Siggy Bilstein, the chief technology officer, have already organized house concerts, recitals and other events in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Berkeley and Ross, with more on the way.

Sara LeMesh (Photo/Gurusurya Khalsa)
Sara LeMesh (Photo/Gurusurya Khalsa)

On Monday, Aug. 27, “Ageless Yoga and Tea” will be offered at a San Francisco studio. And stay tuned for events on the Peninsula and in the South Bay, said LeMesh, who hopes to host activities on the East Coast as well — starting in New York — by the end of the year.

Ayuda is Spanish for “help,” a word that “captured the global population of senior care,” said LeMesh, 27, whose ultimate ambition is to “grow [the program] all over the world.” Her partner in life as well as business, Bilstein also equates ayuda to the Hebrew name Yehuda (meaning “praised”), which he said is a nod to his “Peruvian-German-Jewish” roots. His grandfather escaped Nazi Germany to Peru, where Bilstein was born before moving to Miami with his family.

LeMesh grew up in San Rafael. The musically inclined couple — she’s a classically trained soprano who has sung with the San Francisco Opera and he’s a musician — met at Rice University in Houston, Texas. LeMesh still juggles singing gigs with running Ayuda Care, while Bilstein has sidelined his guitar-playing to put his computer programming and engineering skills to use helping the business.

LeMesh’s dad, geriatrician Dr. Russell LeMesh, also is involved in the fledgling organization, as its medical director. He is associate medical director at On Lok Lifeways in San Francisco, a nonprofit providing health care and other services to older adults.

LeMesh credits her father and mother as role models who jump-started her interest in volunteering at a young age, starting with Mitzvah Days at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. She also cites Moji Javid, the Reform congregation’s director of synagogue engagement, for turning her on to Bread and Roses — a “phenomenal organization,” LeMesh  said, that she first linked up with as a community service project for her bat mitzvah.

She’s been volunteering since 2003 with the Marin-based nonprofit, which brings musical entertainment to prison inmates, adults in rehab, hospitalized children and others. LeMesh also began singing in nursing homes, and still maintains the connection: “We’re developing partnerships” with assisted-living facilities and organizations that provide “care-management solutions,” she said.

But LeMesh strives to do more than entertain and engage the elderly. She wants to support caregivers, too. On its weekly newsletter and blog, Ayuda Care has articles on such topics as “Self-care for caregivers” and “How to engage with your loved one, even when it’s hard.” And there’s plenty for seniors themselves — from fun topics such as “Five Quirky Movies About Old Age” to more serious issues such as food safety and suicide prevention.

LeMesh began researching aging after her grandfather died alone in his mobile home in Florida in 2017. He’d been dead three days before a neighbor discovered his body.

LeMesh had “observed him struggling with loneliness and depression,” she wrote in a piece for Medium.com, but she struggled with “a more existential feeling of wrongness” after he died. “How is it that so many people die alone? Why do we marginalize the aging, the old, the sick? How is it that in a nation full of technological connection and convenience, people still die on their living room floor undiscovered for 72 hours?”

She began gathering statistics. “One thing was clear,” she wrote. “People want genuine connection regardless of the host, whether it’s on Facebook Messenger or Amazon Alexa. Technology represents an adaptive conduit; communication is the constant …

“After losing sleep and some sanity, I decided to think about solutions. What could I make to prevent someone from living completely alone in old age? Can technology abate loneliness and increase safety? I didn’t have the answers, but I knew that talking to real people was the natural place to start.”

Her conversations included caregivers who not only provided insight into the wants and needs of elders, but convinced her that the caregivers, too, need support.

She also hopes Ayuda Care will benefit singers, musicians, artists, and others who can perform or lead workshops. Ayuda Care can can serve as a marketplace of sorts for such activities in its aim “to decrease social isolation among seniors by democratizing access to accessible events and activities” (quoted from the mission statement on its website).

“The release of our app is around the corner,” she added, “and it will allow seniors to make their own calendar with Ayuda.”

More broadly, “We want people of all ages to get involved,” LeMesh said. “All of the events are senior-focused, but we do encourage [younger] people to attend with a parent or great-aunt or grandparent.”

Ayuda Care has information and a schedule of events at ayuda.care.

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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.