Seniors & Aging

This long-lived group of friends shares household chores, good food, lively talk

Former Western Washington University professor Bob Keller, right, chats during a break in an annual work party Sept. 3, 2016, at his and Pat Karlberg’s house in Bellingham. The group of former Western students, instructors, staff and family members has been meeting since 1999 to clean and repair their homes.
Former Western Washington University professor Bob Keller, right, chats during a break in an annual work party Sept. 3, 2016, at his and Pat Karlberg’s house in Bellingham. The group of former Western students, instructors, staff and family members has been meeting since 1999 to clean and repair their homes. For The Bellingham Herald

Bob Keller, 82, and his wife, Pat Karlberg, 81, needed some chores done around their Bellingham home. Here’s what they got done the first Saturday in September:

They put up a bird feeder, emptied a large freeze, rotated a mattress, cleaned a porch railing and varnished a door. They also fixed a downspout, tackled some blackberries and weeds, repaired a shed roof and cleaned the garage. And they moved a mountain of papers from a library loft, spiffed up the garden, adjusted a screen door and replaced slats on a compost bin.

They, of course, had some help. From seven friends, to be precise.

Keller and Karlberg are part of a tight group of friends who have been getting together since 1999 to do house and yard work for each other and to share potluck meals and lively conversation. Other groups have tried similar arrangements, but holding it together for 17 years, as they have done, is a rare accomplishment.

Doing those things in a group that you admire and enjoy, it’s fun.

Bob Keller, Bellingham

“One part of it is we’re all good friends,” says Robyn Albro, a member who lives in Bellingham and works for a community oil spill organization in the San Juan Islands. “Another part is we like to eat well, and we eat good meals.”

Fairhaven College was the common thread for five couples involved at the beginning. Keller was a professor and Karlberg worked there. Younger members of the group, now in their 50s and 60s, were students, friends, and acquaintances of Keller and Karlberg.

“We fit together very well,” Keller says. “Doing those things in a group that you admire and enjoy, it’s fun.”

Member Tracy Spring initially heard about the idea in Portland, Ore., and found friends to start the group.

Albro said it was a good idea with good timing, because Keller and Karlberg were in their 60s and not getting any younger, and the others had settled down with homes and yards of their own to maintain.

“We all needed help,” Spring says, “and we still do.”

At the start, the couples scheduled four-hour work parties at each of their homes in the spring and again in the fall, along with summer potlucks, two community service projects a year and holiday caroling. The host family plans the day, has the necessary tools and a work schedule ready and provides the main potluck dish and work-break snacks.

“We love getting together, working hard, and working up an appetite,” Spring says.

We don’t have any hard and fast rules, except eating well.

Robyn Albro, Bellingham

They have kept it going through the years as their jobs progressed, their families grew, and at least two couples divorced, while staying on good terms with their exes. In recent years, their busy schedules have made it harder to always fit in a community service project, and they’ve trimmed their work parties from four hours down to two.

“Four hours is more challenging, especially since some of the work is physical,” Albro says. “People have more ‘back issues.’”

Or, as Spring puts it, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is aging.”

Albro says the group’s longevity reflects their commitment to help each other, and a willingness to make adjustments for their busy lives and advancing years.

“We don’t have any hard and fast rules, except eating well,” she says.

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