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How the Village Movement Can Help You Age in Place

A conversation wtih the founder of Boston's Beacon Hill, one of the first communities designed to allow groups of people to stay put as they grow old


A version of this article previously appeared on the PBS NewsHour site. 

Twelve years ago, a handful of older residents living in a tony section in Boston gathered to figure out a way they could age in place in the neighborhood they so dearly loved.

After months of meetings and fundraising, they launched the Beacon Hill Village, a nonprofit membership organization that provides free or low-cost services to seniors who have chosen to live in their own homes.

The services include social clubs, weekly exercise classes and lectures, transportation to doctors’ offices and grocery stores, plus access to reduced-fee home medical care and home repair services.

Beacon Hill Village now boasts 400 members and the concept has spread to other communities across the country. There are about 100 “villages” to date, with another 200 in development, according to the national organization that helps establish these networks. Each one is formed and governed locally, tailored to the specific needs of that community.

Susan McWhinney-Morse was one of the original founders of Beacon Hill Village. She spoke to the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez about why she thinks this may be the answer for millions of baby-boomers as they approach their 70s and 80s.

(MORE: The Village Movement: Redefining Aging in Place)

Ray Suarez: Do you remember when it occurred to you that you didn’t want to move when you got older?

Susan McWhinney-Morse: I was quite young. I grew up in Denver, Colo., in a household that had been there for a very long time and my family had many, many friends who were close.

One couple went to Arizona one winter — and they never came back. I remember saying to my mother, “I don’t get it. Why did they move to Arizona and not come back? They left everybody they knew and everybody they cared about just to be warm?” I was probably 10 or 12 and I found that just absolutely nonsensical.

So you made up your mind early that this sort of gypsy life didn’t appeal to you. But a lot of people move, not because they want to so much as because they have to. They can’t afford their old housing or their needs have changed. How do you make it work to remain in place?

I think there are multiple options now. Probably up until the turn of the last century, there appeared to be very few options because our houses were too big. It was too hard to take care of them. But now I think people are beginning to understand that they can move to a smaller apartment in their own community. This house was way too big for my husband and me, but we turned it into apartments. So we downsized in our own house. If one begins to look at the options one has to stay at home, then one can be very creative and find the resources and support needed to keep their roots.

(MORE: Help Your Parents Join the Aging in Place Revolution)

When did you realize that a lot of other people felt the same way?

When we started Beacon Hill Village, there were 11 of us who got together one cold November day with this abstract determination that we’re not going anywhere. But we wanted to be responsible by not going anywhere. We didn’t want to have to depend upon our children who might live in the next community or across the country. So after two years we formed this organization that seemed to fit our needs. We began to understand that maybe we had tapped into a whole movement and we weren’t alone — it was becoming perhaps even a worldwide idea that one could stay in one’s community.

So how do you design a way of life, a response to 21st-century realities that both allows you to stay in your home and recognizes that your needs change as you enter the later decades of your life?

That’s assuming there’s a line when that begins to happen, but there isn’t a line. We grow old slowly, some of us — most of us — and in different ways, with different needs. Certainly I have less energy than I once had. But that’s been a very slow progression. I don’t hike anymore, but I walk a lot. So have I recognized that I’m “really old”? I’m almost 80. I don’t think I qualify for that old-fashioned label.

(MORE: Village Living for Help With Daily Tasks)

Yet when you look at a group, a randomly selected group of 80-year-olds, there’s a lot of range.

There’s a huge variation. I think that’s perhaps one of the geniuses in the way the village movement has been set up, because it takes into account that we are all aging in different ways with different needs at different times. Early on, people said, “You cannot retire on Beacon Hill — it just won’t work. You have bricks to fall on and stairs to climb; it’s not appropriate for older people.” And my answer to that is, “If I stop climbing stairs, I won’t be able to climb stairs.” I think it’s very important to keep moving.

Is the village model something that would work outside of communities of people with resources and means — upper-middle-class people?

Absolutely. The challenge to creating a village is obtaining the start-up money. Because this is a serious ongoing business that must be accountable, it needs to be stable. So the issue of how to obtain financial support is important. We’re 10 to 12 years old, this whole venture. There are 110 villages across the country. There are 200 villages in the works. We’ve created what we call “Village to Village Network,” a web-based support system in which anyone who wishes to start a village can get information from any other village. There’s a lot of communication, a lot of sharing of the basic facts. How do you get your 501(c)(3)? How do you create a business plan? How do you vet your providers? So we’re all connected and it helps spread the whole movement.

I really believe this model is a terrific answer, particularly for people who are low- to moderate-income and middle class, who simply have no other options, who can’t move to retirement communities, who don’t have the resources to go to Sun City. I think it’s very realistic that it could become the norm in many areas.

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