Seeking Village

Inspired by the Beacon Hill Village that began in Boston in 2001, the “village” is a new, person-to-person way of delivering services to older people who want to “age-in-place.” Aging-in-place is having the opportunity and ability to live out your life in your own home instead of in a retirement home, nursing home or assisted living facility. It has been defined more broadly as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” By joining together in a village, older people are able to receive a wide variety of services to help them stay in their own homes, and, as they are able, to provide services to others in the village. But villages are about more than delivery of services, because they can also provide a social support system through shared activities and person-to-person connections and friendships.

The Village-to-Village Network defines villages as “membership-driven, grass-roots organizations that, through both volunteers and paid staff, coordinate access to affordable services including transportation, health and wellness programs, home repairs, social and educational activities, and other day-to-day needs enabling individuals to remain connected to their community throughout the aging process.”

The Beacon Hill Village website reports that in 2012 there were 70 villages operating throughout the country. A survey published by the Rutgers School of Social Work reported 85 villages in operation and at least 120 in development. The number of currently operating villages and villages-in-development is a moving target, because the idea is catching on quickly throughout the U.S. as well as in other countries. The number of villages is bound to grow. The population of people over age 65 in the U.S. is increasing. It has been estimated that 10,000 people in this country are turning 65 each day. Older people generally want to remain in their homes as long as possible. The over-65 population is expected to grow to 71.5 million by 2030. A survey conducted by AARP in 2010 found that, by far, the preference of older people is to remain in their own homes. Among respondents, 73% “strongly agreed” with the statement, “what I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.”

That would be my response too, if I were asked. At present, my wife and I (ages 61 and 64) are healthy, active, and able to take care of ourselves without assistance. We do not know what the future will bring in the next five, ten or fifteen years. Any anxiety we feel about becoming older and less able to care for ourselves would be greatly relieved if there were a village in our area and a number to call to ask for help when we need it.

The Rutgers survey found that villages in operation across the country share the goals of promoting older adults’ access to services, strengthening social relationships and reducing isolation, promoting contributions by older adults to their community, and helping the broader community become more “aging-friendly.” Services are provided by a combination of village staff, village member volunteers, non-member volunteers, and preferred providers. Villages provide a consolidation of services—a “one-stop” resource for members of the village who need almost any kind of help imaginable.

Although many services are provided by the members themselves, most villages have developed a list of preferred providers whose work has earned a stamp of approval from village members and staff. Some preferred providers offer discounts to village members. The village provides its members with a “concierge service” of referral to volunteers or to preferred providers for services such as home maintenance or repair, home health care, housekeeping, technology assistance and transportation. Village staff or volunteers provide transportation services, home maintenance help, reassurance calls and friendly visits, and help with grocery shopping, as well as recreation and social events. Villages offer a “healthy living” component that may include exercise classes, lectures and seminars, informal lunches, and trips.

Villages are generally organized as non-profit corporations governed by a board of directors and operated by a combination of paid staff and volunteers. Members pay an annual fee. The Rutgers survey found that the average membership cost for individuals was about $430 and for couples, about $590, although most villages offer a reduced rate for members in financial need.

There is no village where I live, and creation of a viable village requires the combined efforts of a dedicated core group of village founders who are willing to do the hard work of organizing. The work of developing a village—and sustaining it successfully—is more than a bit daunting, but it can be done. Other communities have successfully started villages or are in the process of forming them, and much can be learned from their experiences.

One example of what it takes has been described in the blog, Independently Aging…Together!  About two years ago, a small group of “smart, interesting, inquisitive folks” in Portland, Oregon, began meeting together to pursue their shared vision of a village there. The group identified a list of initial steps and developed an organizational structure to carry out projects and ongoing activities necessary to the formation of a village. Villages NW is a non-profit organization recently formed in Portland to educate the public about villages and to provide a resource to connect villages in the Pacific Northwest. Ronni Bennett recently discussed the village idea in her blog, Time Goes By and provided links to more information.

A village is not going to happen in my neighborhood unless a core group of volunteers emerges and sets about the business of building a village piece-by-piece. The work of developing a village provides the kind of challenge and opportunity for meaningful engagement that many retired people may be seeking. In year two of my retirement, I will continue my own search for a village, and I hope to find others who share my interest. It is not something that any of us can do on our own—and that, in the larger perspective, is a realization that underlies the very purpose of a village.

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