August 8, 2011

It Takes a Village to Help Seniors Stay in Their Homes

August 8, 2011

Nearly all seniors want to stay at home as they grow older instead of moving to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, or nursing homes. But it isn’t easy. With limited transportation options, it’s hard to shop and get to the doctor. Many communities lack housing suited for seniors who have trouble getting around, and trudging upstairs or trying to wedge a wheelchair into a narrow bathroom can be daily ordeals. Often, home health care is expensive and hard to find too. With the population aging rapidly, US metros are struggling to create more livable communities so older adults can, as gerontologists put it, “age in place.” Most have a long way to go, and shrinking government budgets magnify the challenges.

One innovation that doesn’t rely on public funds emerged 10 years ago this month. That’s when Beacon Hill Village was incorporated in Boston. There,  the nation’s first nonprofit organized by neighbors started helping provide each other with the services and supports  needed to remain in the neighborhood instead of relocating to old-age homes. Its success spawned more than 50 other retirement villages nationwide, and hundreds more are on the drawing boards.

The retirement village concept is simple. Members must live in the neighborhood and generally be at least 50 years old. For the dues they pay they receive help with everyday activities. Services vary by village, but most include rides to doctor offices and supermarkets, advocates at medical appointments, and help with household chores—whether routine paper work, simple repairs, or meal preparation. Without these basic services, many members might have to move from homes and neighborhoods they know and love to drab institutions.

Topping the list of benefits villages provide is a lifeline when emergencies strike. The “Rise and Shine” program in the retirement village in Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood pairs members who then check in on each other every morning with a phone call. The village office follows up if nobody answers the scheduled call.

Villages often refer members to professionals, such as home health care agencies, plumbers, and electricians, who provide paid services. But many village services are offered by volunteers, who are often members themselves. And that develops a real sense of community, village advocates say. It’s good to get your sink unclogged, but even better to link up with your neighbors and feel like part of a larger community.

Retirement villages can’t single-handedly make our metros work for aging Boomers. For one thing, nearly all villages so far are in affluent neighborhoods. At Beacon Hill, annual dues are now $640 per person or $925 per household. It’s not clear how well these villages would work in lower-income neighborhoods (though advocates claim that foundations could help underwrite some costs). Even so, retirement villages show one way  neighbors can come together to keep aging from meaning moving.

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