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The Village Movement: Redefining Aging in Place

A new approach allows people to stay in their homes while easing the burden on their family caregivers

By Sherri Snelling | June 8, 2012
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Sherri Snelling, executive director at Keck Medicine of USC and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one.

Although it's not news that the 78 million members of the baby boomer generation are expected to live longer than previous generations, consider how that breaks down: Of those who turned 65 last year, 20 percent will live to age 90, and 1 in every 50 boomer women will reach 100. The quality of their, and our, lives, and where we will all live as we age, are critical questions for our society. In an AARP survey, 90 percent of senior citizens said they wanted to stay in their homes as long as possible, but that puts a potential burden on the family members who will become responsible for managing their care.

The solution, for many, may be the Village Movement.
 
Why It Takes a Village
 
The principles of the Village Movement are simple: Instead of leaving their homes for senior housing or assisted living, a group of residents in a given community, typically age 50 and older, form a non-profit membership organization to provide access to services that support their goal of remaining at home as long as possible. A village can range from a few blocks in an urban or suburban neighborhood to a rural area with a 20-mile radius. Each is autonomous and its members determine which services it will offer. Typical offerings shared by all members include: home-safety modifications, transportation, meal delivery, dog walking, technology training and support, health and wellness programs, social activities, and the services of visiting nurses and care managers. Most villages hire an administrator, either paid or a volunteer, who can connect members with services as needed, as well as coordinate village-wide programs and activities. Many villages recruit and rely on local volunteers to help deliver services to its members as well. For example, if a member needs grab bars installed in a bathroom, he or she would contact the administrator, who might then order the bars from a vendor using the village's group discount (the member would have to pay for the goods) and arrange for installation, either by a volunteer contractor or one working at a discount.

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The first village was founded by a group of residents of the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston in 2001. Today, there are at least 89 villages in 36 states, with about 125 more in development. Most participate in the Village-to-Village (VTV) network, which helps them share best-practice advice for fundraising, establishing services and managing communities, as well as information about group discounts on goods and services. The VTV website also offers a national map of current and planned village sites.

Most villages have between 150 and 200 members. The average resident is a middle-class, 74-year-old woman. Each member pays an annual fee — the average is about $435, but can range from $50 to $1,500. All villages offer discounts or subsidies for lower-income residents, and most take part in fundraising efforts to support their communities.

Villages Benefit Caregivers, Too
 
More than 7 million of the 44 million Americans who act as family caregivers for someone over age 50 live at least an hour away from their loved one. These long-distance caregivers face constant worry about how their parents are faring each day, as well as guilt over not being there more often. The Village Movement can ease those concerns. "Baby Boomers are really driving the movement in two ways," says Candace Baldwin, who oversees the VTV Network for NCB Capital Impact, a national non-profit community development group that supports the village model. "First, they are purchasing the membership for their parents, which gives them peace of mind. Second, they believe this is the model they want for their future housing as they grow older and so they are starting that conversation in their own neighborhoods.”

Enrolling parents in a village can also help adult children ease future care transitions. "If you have a mom in a village who has progressive dementia," Baldwin says, "and it becomes apparent she may need to move to receive more specialized care, the care manager who has been part of the village services can facilitate that conversation more easily because they have known both you and your mom through your mom’s residency.”

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As I see it, the Village Movement taps into essential boomer characteristics of independence and volunteerism. Village members have control over their lives — and many volunteer to help other village members. Many support family caregivers by checking up on neighbors on days an adult child cannot, but their support for each other can extend well beyond that. Up to 60 percent of residents volunteer or have embraced encore careers to aid their villages, Baldwin says. In one village, a retired lawyer provides pro bono counsel to neighbors; in another, a nurse volunteers to help older villagers with daily medications; in yet another, a retired executive offers tai chi lessons.

A Renaissance for Aging in Place?
 
In 15th-century Florence, the Medicis brought sculptors, poets, philosophers, painters and architects together, broke down barriers, and gave birth to the Renaissance that was the bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern era. Perhaps the Village Movement, as a solution for aging with a high quality of life, can bring us to a new age of enlightenment about where and how we should live until we breathe our last.
 
The goals that inspired the village model are not revolutionary. To live at home until our last days is a wish most of us share. But the movement does embrace innovation, combining the best new ideas in community-minded living, volunteerism, personal control and person-centered focus to create what Baldwin calls "the new face of aging."