Posted on 07 October 2009
By Mark Miller
It takes a village to raise a child, the African proverb says. But a group of advocates gathering in Washington, D.C. later this month would probably add this: It takes a village to care for elders, too.
That’s the core idea behind intentional communities–a small but fast-growing grassroots movement to support seniors who want to age in place, rather than move to retirement communities. They do so by providing the support services people need where they are, rather than moving people to a centralized point where services are made available.
The pioneer in intentional communities is Beacon Hill Village, a non-profit that launched in 2002 to serve seniors in central Boston.
Beacon Hill Village (BHV) was founded by a small group of residents who wanted to stay in their homes as they aged. What’s sprung up is a home-grown network with 450 members, up from 70 when the community was founded. The members’ ages range from early the 50s to over 100.
The idea is taking hold nationally; in 2008 and 2009, 48 new communities were started around the country by other groups following the BHV model.
Beacon Hill Village supports that expansion through sponsorship of the Village to Village Network (VTV), a national organization that provides assistance and consulting services to intentional community start-ups. One way VTV does that is by running workshops and conferences designed to help people start their own communities; on Oct. 26, it will sponsor a symposium in Washington, D.C. called Creating and Running Your Own Village.
Most Americans would prefer to stay where they are as they get older. One AARP survey found that 89 percent of Americans would like to live in their current homes as long as possible – and that number rose to 95 percent when people over age 75 were asked the question. Despite all the hype and marketing around the concept of active adult and age-restricted communities, only three percent of 55-plus households had moved to one as recently as 2007, according to a survey by Metlife and the National Association of Homebuilders.
But successful aging in place depends on factors that extend far beyond shelter–good public transportation, walkable communities, one-stop shopping locations, shuttle services, age-appropriate fitness and community centers.
Here’s how Beacon Hill Village tackles the challenges:
–Concierge: BHV maintains a database of vetted service providers and can refer them to members, and serve as a go-between if the need arises to advocate on members’ behalf. Service providers include everything from personal trainers to dog walkers, health cubs and geriatric care management.
–Living assistance. BHV can arrange all kinds of in-home services, such as meal delivery, transportation, social services, or even hospice care.
–Community. This component is especially important for people living alone. BHV offers seminars, trips, lectures, exercise class and wellness/prevention programs. “It’s as though you lived in a high level continuing care retirement community, but the people who started it and choose to be part of it are passionate about being in their own homes for rest of their lives,” says Judy Willett, BHV’s executive director.
Although Beacon Hill started as a grassroots community effort, today it has a professional staff and is funded through annual membership fees ($600 for an individual and $890 for a household), plus some additional costs for discounted a la carte services; subsidies also are available for individuals who can’t afford the full fee.
The BHV model is hardly the only community-based approach to aging in place. For example, Naturally Occuring Retirement Communities (NORCs ) typically provide support services in apartment buildings with high concentrations of older residents, most often serving low-income households. But NORCs involve an array of federal grants, social workers and nursing services.
BHV utilizes a member-driven model. “The board, and our committees are all made up of our members,” says Willett. “There’s not a single social service provider or social workers or doctors. This is a way for people to be in control of their lives and to remain independent.”