Villages Revisited

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Only a few years ago, the Village Movement was hailed as a growing way to “help ease the challenge of caring for a rapidly aging population” by providing support and services that allow seniors to achieve what so many covet: the ability to live independently, to age in place.

The Village concept is at the same time quaint (neighbors helping neighbors) and newer-fangled, playing into today’s focus on the sharing economy (peers bartering for and exchanging goods and services). So the idea that it hasn’t caught on like wildfire confused and surprised many academics and researchers. Several recently got out the tools of their trades — spreadsheets and questionnaires — and took a closer look.

Much of their research is collected at the Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services in Berkeley, California. The most somber inference: “A question remains whether Villages actually help prevent institutionalization,” according to Andrew Scharlach, a professor of the graduate school at the Center.

The Village Look and Feel

While their structures differ according to locale, a Village was originally conceived as an association with a sense of ownership of and by its members, who collaborate to provide or search out dependable and affordable services seniors need to remain living in their communities.

According to the Village to Village Network, a national group formed in 2010 to help make and keep Villages sustainable: “Villages do anything their members need to age safely and successfully in their own homes.” Those services range widely. Among them: reprogramming a remote control, preparing meals, cutting lawns, walking dogs, providing rides to doctor visits, making friendly visits to those hampered or housebound, offering organized social and cultural events. It reports there are now 337 Village organizations in various forms and formats throughout the U.S.

Members, who pay an annual fee to belong to a Village, are generally restricted to residents who live in a particular geographic area, within reach of the services and programs offered. Average fees for an individual are $417 (ranging nationwide from $10 to $900) and $607 for a household, usually a couple (ranging from $15 to $1,309). Nearly half of the Villages now also offer “tiered” memberships, charging a lower annual fee for access to limited activities — to social events only, for example, rather than other services.

While about 20{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of the Villages now in operation are run completely by volunteers, the great majority have at least one paid staff member. The norm is one paid staffer per 80 Village members, and the Village size is 146; most top out at around 300 members.

In the original model, Villages were supported and sustained solely through member dues, but now only about half the revenue comes from dues, with the rest from donations, fundraising events, and various private and government grants.

Beacon Hill Beckons

The first Village, Beacon Hill Village, was started by 11 friends in Boston in 2001, and now boasts 400 members. It has served as the loose blueprint for other Villages around the nation and the world.

In a group meeting with prospective new members a few years ago, founding member Susan McWhinney-Morse explained Beacon Hill Village’s initial intentions: “What we ended up creating was a system that enables us all to take care of ourselves,” she says.  “And that’s a very important distinction from the social service industry that says it will take care of us. Because it really gives us the freedom of choice, the freedom of movement, and the freedom to be who we want to be.”

McWhinney-Morse also adamantly stresses that the Beacon Hill Village is not a “social service” model as much as a group of older individuals motivated to work together to take care of themselves. It offers members a variety of exercise classes, organized bus trips to discover and tour, a weekly breakfast meeting, lectures and book groups, as well as discounted transportation and household repair services. Membership is open to local residents who are 50 years old and older. And annual membership fees are $675 for an individual and $975 for a household — though reduced fees are offered for those who are 60 and older who have low-to-moderate incomes.

Soon after Beacon Hill made itself known, there was a quick proliferation as the idea spread organically, and hopeful individuals embraced the idea of getting needed help and services provided by trusted neighbors or vetted local businesses. Organizations, too, such as hospitals and senior centers, were quick to mount the bandwagon, offering Village memberships as “add-ons” to their usual services.

Wither They Goest?

Nearly two decades after the first Village was formed, the concept continues to catch on and flourish in some communities. But at least 15 Villages have floundered and ultimately closed down; many groups came together with the best intentions, but were not able to launch as Villages. Only about 15{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of all Villages are now agency-based — that is, offered by a social service or government agency, senior housing provider, or neighborhood association — a precipitous decline since the year 2012. And a growing chorus of critics complain that the idea has not delivered the panacea it promised.

Those interested in starting up a new Village or reenergizing a flagging one would be wise to pay attention to the weaknesses and challenges identified.

Same old, same old. Perhaps the most common complaint is that many Villages are homogeneous — catering mostly to younger, white, well-educated residents. Recent research underscores that fact, finding that overall, 96{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of Village members were white, 42{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} were 74 years old or younger, and 80{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} had a college education or higher. Some groups have attempted outreach to more low income, LBGTQ, and ethnic minority members — and to bridging the inter-generational gap by encouraging projects and activities with younger local residents. “What some Villages may face in the diversity challenge,” according to Roscoe Nicholson, senior research associate at Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, “is that Latino communities and black churches tend to do a good job of serving their people on their own.”

Communication problems. The pivotal problem for some may be a failure to communicate. Villages that maintain websites or that publish informational brochures often make muzzy promises of “connecting seniors to the community.” But the how and even the why is rarely clearly explained. Ask current Village members or even staffers to provide a succinct explanation of the raison d’etre for their group, and a worrying few can do it.

Little ado for older residents. Many say Villages are most attractive to “new” seniors — those in their late 60s to mid-70s who don’t yet think of themselves as fitting candidates for senior centers or the dwindling number of community services with “aging” in their titles. In that way, Villages are not living up to their goal of reaching the “oldest old” or even the “older old” contemplated to need their services most. And some organizers verify that attendance at Village events, such as social events and fundraisers, tends to slack off rather quickly. “I pay my dues every year, because I think that Villages are a good idea,” say one longtime member. “But I never go to the events; I can still get to things on my own.”

Politics as unusual. Some hopeful organizers report their hope to establish Villages in their communities was met with hostility from existing groups servicing seniors, such as local Councils on Aging. The perceived threat is often hard-fought competition for the limited and dwindling grants and other funding available for senior services. The best way to allay such fears, some say, is to form an alliance with those already in the field, proposing tangible ways to work together rather than replicate services.

Not delivering on need. Only a handful of Villages around the country offer what a majority of seniors say they need most: help with navigating through the complex medical billing systems and coordinating healthcare services. “I hoped to get help in finding a few good and dependable specialists in my area,” said one recent Village member. “What I got handed was a printout from the Medicare website. I didn’t feel like that was any help at all.”

Business people as usual. Insiders say that many of the Villages have gone wrong in hiring the wrong type of staffers. Many of those with paid executive directors, for example, have looked to hire those most likely to plump up the bottom line: retired or current CEOs, or business types. They may know how to plump up the bottom line, but very often have little or no experience dealing with older populations and no fingertips for their needs. In some Villages, administrative salaries make up a large percentage of the group’s total budget.

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