“Need help changing a light bulb?”— It Takes a Village to Care for an Aging Population

Published In Alternative Senior Housing

The African proverb “it takes a village” meant raising a child, but today it also applies to caring for an aging population.

Today’s new villages are an integral part of the growing movement to provide the support and services that will help America’s rapidly aging population “age in place” in their own homes by performing age-challenged but mundane chores, such as changing light bulbs and shoveling snow, as well as providing such essential services as transporting them to shopping and medical appointments and providing opportunities for socialization.

These present day villages could help ease the challenge of caring for a rapidly aging population. Surveys show that three quarters of today’s seniors would rather spend their declining years in their own homes, not in a nursing or other retirement home. With the 65 plus population growing at a rate of about 1.7 million every year, the country simply doesn’t have enough of these facilities to care for the looming surge of aging Boomers.

An Old-Fashioned Idea Made Modern

The village concept is old-fashioned and straightforward: Neighbors help neighbors, much as it used to be when towns and communities were small and well defined and everyone knew everyone else.

Adopting this old-fashioned idea, the first formal village was formed in 2001 in the Beacon Hill area of Boston where about a dozen long-time neighbors decided they wanted to remain in their own homes instead of going to an old-age home. They also didn’t want to burden their children or anyone else, even when household chores and transportation became a challenge.

As a solution, they started an organization, a virtual retirement community that would help members with the kinds of services they needed to remain in their homes.

The organization grew slowly as members learned through trial and error what worked and what didn’t. Several years later, after the New York Times published an article on the Beacon Hill organization, other groups picked up the idea and the village movement spread, aided by a how-to-manual based on their experiences produced by members of the original Beacon Hill village.

A Fast-Growing Movement

The village movement grew so quickly that by the end of 2021 the Village-to-Village Network, formed to keep track of and assist the new movement, listed more than 250 villages, not including those that were still being organized and developed.

Each village serves a defined area. Individuals and households pay a membership fee either on an annual, semi-annual or quarterly basis. Some villages offer a graduated fee schedule based on an individual’s ability to pay and/or offers reduced membership fees for lower-income members.  Additional revenue sources are from donations from community supporters, fundraising events, and local businesses as well as foundation grants.  In return members receive services such as transportation, home maintenance, shopping, and yard work, much provided by volunteers.

Most villages have one or two paid employees who design programs and solicit help from volunteers, who may include able-bodied village members, younger neighbors, and youths doing community service. The paid employees serve as “navigators” and can help members set up appointments and see that they have transportation, when needed, but also organize special events and outings.

Too, most villages provide members with lists of pre-approved home maintenance contactors, many of whom agree to provide services at a discount. Some villages also schedule cultural events, trips to museums, movies and concerts, offer exercise classes and schedule potlucks and other opportunities for socialization.

Spreading Beyond Neighborhoods

Though villages began in an urban neighborhood where neighborhoods are easily defined, the concept has spread to the suburbs and even rural areas as seniors see the need to help and check on each other and also want to help others when able.

According to its 2022 annual report, membership stood at 253 open Villages and 58 “opportunity Villages” in formation. A 2022 AARP article states that most Village members are female, white, highly educated and healthy. About 27% of Village members use transportation services from the Village.

Most of the villages are self-governing. and, in addition to a paid staff member, most rely on volunteers. Almost all had an advisory group and provided members with a list of preferred providers or vetted vendors.

The village experience, to date, documents that the blend of volunteer and paid help provides village members with the same kinds of services available in a retirement community and, as the village concept spreads, that may be enough to keep growing numbers of seniors in their own homes so that they can “age in place.”

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