America’s burgeoning senior population will require creative new strategies for successful aging in place. One such strategy is embodied by the “Village” concept, pioneered by Beacon Hill Village in Boston, Massachusetts. Conceived in 1999, Beacon Hill Village is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that makes a broad range of services available to its members through volunteers, selected service providers and strategic partnerships.
Now often referred to as an “aging in place community”, the Beacon Hill Village model has spread to over 60 similar community organizations nationwide, with many more under development. Although their offerings and resources vary, Villages share certain common features: they are grassroots organizations driven by neighborhood seniors who are determined to stay in their homes; they are primarily supported by and governed by resident members, who usually pay a regular membership fee; their central function is the coordination of access to affordable services, which can include anything from transportation to home repairs to social events to in-home personal care; they offer pre-screened providers who often discount their services to members; they depend heavily on neighborhood volunteers.
In Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. there are now 12-14 open Villages and another 17 or so in the planning stages. Mount Vernon at Home is one example. It opened its doors in 2009 and now has about 180 dues-paying members. According to its Executive Director, Barbara Sullivan, the organization now boasts 80 volunteers and has 250 preferred providers on its list.
Sullivan points out that starting and sustaining a Village requires hard work and careful strategic planning. Since each community is different, planners must think early on about the specific needs of area seniors. “Transportation was one of the biggest needs for our seniors. If they don’t drive, they still must be able to do shopping and get to appointments,” said Sullivan. Social connectivity and minor household repairs were other areas where the organization found it could provide value. Mount Vernon at Home volunteers do myriad seemingly simple tasks that can be problematic for the elderly–everything from troubleshooting a computer to replacing a ceiling bulb. “You’d be surprised at the requests we get from our members,” said Sullivan.
An ongoing concern for Villages is sustainable financing. According to Sullivan, Mount Vernon at Home gets about 60% of its funding from membership dues. The rest has to come from elsewhere, including charitable donations and federal, state and local grant monies. Governments and private entities concerned with aging in place are taking notice. The D.C. Office of Aging, for example, gave $15,000 to help launch the DuPont Circle Village in 2009. The Village earlier received a $3,000 grant from the DuPont Circle Citizens Association.
Besides funding concerns, there are other challenges. It is unclear how successful the Village model can be in low-income communities or sparsely populated rural areas. In addition, neighborhood residents are not always receptive to the idea of paying hundreds of dollars in yearly dues. Nevertheless, Mount Vernon at Home’s Sullivan is confident that neighborhood Villages are here to stay and will play an essential role in allowing seniors to remain safely in their home communities.