When I moved part-time to Washington, D.C., to be closer to my kids and grandkids, people there kept urging me to join something called the Village. I had no idea what they meant. Maybe Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village”? Or the 1980s disco group, the Village People?
The advice to join the Village often came in response to me lamenting that it’s hard to meet people in a new city, especially D.C., where work-obsessed residents, I’ve found, more readily exchange business cards than friendly greetings.
But “The Village,” as I later learned, is an exciting new phenomenon: a mutual support network designed to help seniors live independently and stay in their homes (“age in place”) and to combat the isolation and loneliness that too often comes with aging. I also learned that among upstate communities, Buffalo, Albany, and Ithaca already have their own Villages.
It may be something we might consider trying in Rochester.
The Village movement began in 2001, when friends and neighbors in Boston’s Beacon Hill formed a nonprofit organization through which they could share services and support. In one sense, the idea harkened back to earlier times when neighbors looked out for one another.
But in another it was revolutionary: seniors pooled resources to provide services directly to each other—a pioneering version of the peer-to-peer economy.
Greetings from Washington, D.C., Beacon readers
Greetings from Washington, D.C., Beacon readers
I hope you’ll enjoy another of my regular dispatches from the nation’s capital. I write as one Rochesterian to another, because though I now spend part of the year in D.C., Rochester is still home.
I’ll report from Congress, the courts, and the White House; talk with former Rochesterians pursuing careers here; and explore a host of other connections—some official, some offbeat—between this “power city” and our own Flower City.
Be in touch. Are there aspects of the D.C.-Rochester connection you’d suggest I explore? Is a friend or family member doing some “top secret” work in D.C. that we should all know about? Drop me a line at [email protected]
Today, there are 250 Villages around the country and 160 more in development. Their rapid growth reflects, in part, our rapidly aging population. By 2030, one in five U.S. residents will be 65 or over, the Washington Post recently reported, and older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in the country’s history as retirement of the Baby Boomers produces what some call the “Silver Tsunami.” And yet, many seniors are isolated and experience chronic loneliness. Indeed, health professionals warn of an “epidemic of loneliness” in the U.S., especially acute among the elderly. Chronic loneliness, warns Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, has the same impact on mortality “as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
For annual dues of $500, my Village will provide—if I request it—volunteers to help me with transportation (rides to the doctor, pharmacy, shopping, etc.), and home maintenance (everything from changing light bulbs to installing an air conditioner). Fortunately, I haven’t had need for these services as I get around fine by Metro and bus, and my building provides its own maintenance.
But membership also gives me access to Village-sponsored social events, and these I have very much enjoyed. In just the past few months, I’ve attended a men’s book club, a holiday ball, and an evening educational seminar. Other members enjoy a morning walking group, art gallery events, “Tech Tuesdays” (“bring your phone or computer questions and get or give some answers”), a movie discussion group, monthly “soup salons” (homemade soups, bread, wine, and a speaker), and the annual Villages gala.
As one member put it: “It’s great for networking and I never have to go to a movie alone if I don’t want to.”
Village to Village network
Typically, Villages are set up as nonprofit organizations, elect their own governing boards, and charge their own annual membership fees. Depending on location, the cost to join may range from $25 for a single member and $40 for households, up to $675 for single members and $900 for households. Villages that choose to hire one or more paid staff to help direct operations will often charge the higher rates. (Fees are usually adjusted for members with financial need.) Generally, membership is open to all seniors (usually 62 and older) who live in the same area of a city or town. Members are eligible to receive transportation and home maintenance services from other member-volunteers (sometimes home maintenance is also provided through a list of vetted contractors) and to participate in the Village’s social activities.
A national organization—the Village to Village Network —acts as a clearinghouse to help local Villages share information and support one another. Among other services, they provide a “Village 101 Toolkit” with information and documents to help people start their own Village. Recently, I spoke by phone with Barbara Sullivan, the group’s executive director. We discussed, among other things, the prospects for a Village in Rochester.
Following is an edited version of our conversation.
In my Village in Washington, D.C., I enjoy the social events—men’s book group, seminars, etc. But what do you find are the most popular services among Villagers nationwide?
Number one is transportation. Even if a community has good public transportation it may not be able to take you to your doctor or the grocery or your bank when you need to get there. Help with home maintenance, too, is always appreciated. So is Rise and Shine, where it’s offered.
Rise and Shine? What’s that?
It’s a morning call. People who sign up for Rise and Shine, they just want to be able to talk to somebody on a daily basis, have a conversation: “Good morning! How you doing today?” It’s a daily check in—and sometimes a medical lifesaver.
Do you run into common misconceptions about the Villages movement?
Absolutely. People sometimes think we’re a home health agency—that’s partly because some of the Villages have the word “home” in their names—but we’re not. People also ask, “So you mean like ‘The Villages’ in Florida?’ No, that’s a retirement community and we’re not that, either. It’s just hard to describe what a Village is—the concept of support services within a volunteer community of seniors—so we’re always striving to get the correct message out.
Rochester has a well-developed network of support programs for seniors—from the towns, the county, YMCAs, Jewish Family Service, New York State Department of Aging, and others. Does a service-rich community like Rochester still need a Village?
It’s not about reinventing the wheel. Villages help coordinate existing services for their members—connect the dots, if you will. Also, most groups don’t have the ability to organize and motivate volunteers for services such as transportation the way the Villages do. And in most communities, there are usually still unmet needs: transportation is often a big one, so is home maintenance, and so is isolation. That’s why all the activities to help seniors stay socially engaged are vital, and so popular.
How does a Village get started?
Typically, it’s just a core group of neighbors—very grassroots—or sometimes it’s an organization such as a Y or Family Service, and the individuals and the organization partner together. It can take two years from conception to when a new Village becomes operational.
So, for a midsize city like Rochester, would there be a location within the area that’s the best place for a Village to start?
It depends on where the population is that you want to serve. Where you have lots of Baby Boomers, that’s ideal because historically they haven’t connected with services for aging. Your starting location could be downtown or it could be in a suburb or town. Some Villages use a hub-and-spoke model, with a key location downtown and services radiating out to suburbs and towns.
How many Villages could a city the size of Rochester support?
Well, just as a comparison, Columbus, Ohio presently supports five Villages. My town, Alexandria, Virginia, has three.
The Village concept relies heavily on members volunteering to help other members. Is that sustainable—are members reliable volunteers?
They are, and here’s the reason: When you’re retired, you still want to be able to go home at the end of the day and say, ‘Yeah, I did something useful today.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had volunteers call me and say, ‘I’m really happy I drove Joe today. What a great guy and it gave me a sense of purpose.’ We see a lot of people, Baby Boomers especially, doing a lot more volunteer work than ever before.
Any favorite volunteer story?
At my Village in Alexandria, we have a gentleman with this big, wood-paneled station wagon and once a week he’ll take a bunch of ladies to the grocery store and even go in with them in case they need help with heavy items. So, one day he’s in the store with one of our members when she collapses. He gets the manager, he calls 911, he asks her for her daughter’s phone number and calls her—and then while she’s taken away by ambulance, he finishes her shopping, pays for it, takes it back to her house and puts all the food away.
He went so far above and beyond with his caring attitude, and it wasn’t just a “one and done” incident because he’d worked together with her and other members long enough to have a rapport. That’s what a Village creates.
How about you: What do you find most satisfying about working for the Villages?
I get a lot of satisfaction when other organizations—like the YMCAs, AARP, Health and Human Services—say, ‘Yeah, we’ve heard about the Villages and we want to know more.’ That’s personally fulfilling because I think we’re making a difference. Look, I have no idea what’s going to happen with Social Security and with Medicare; it’s a daunting prospect of what will happen as we age. But with the Villages movement, it’s consumer-led and we’re taking control. This is a model that’s growing and hopefully people will jump on board and be part of this new wave, this revolution in aging.
No Rochester Village—yet
Advocates for seniors in the Rochester area understand that people often want to stay in their own homes as they age, but as yet no organizations have undertaken to help establish a Village.
Lifespan, founded in 1971, provides services to Rochester-area older adults and caregivers. The organization employs some 160 full- and part-time people and has an annual budget of $10.4 million.
“We’re aware of the Village movement,” says Mary Rose McBride, vice president of marketing and communications for Lifespan, “but so far we haven’t tried to establish a Village locally.”
Instead, the organization has helped launch a different type of group called a NORC, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. These aim to provide some of the same types of services as Villages do—help with transportation, home maintenance, etc.—but through programs organized and directed by an outside agency such as Lifespan.
“NORCs are not grassroots,” McBride notes. “We get in there to help residents of a neighborhood age in place, but these don’t start with a grassroots movement—it’s more like we start offering the services and then try to get the neighbors and the residents involved.”
So far there is one NORC up and running in the Browncroft area—in conjunction with that area’s neighborhood association—and another under way in Irondequoit.
“If someone or some local group wanted to start a Village,” McBride says, “Lifespan could help foster its development. We’ve never been approached about it, but if that’s what the residents of an area wanted us to do, we’d be interested.
Among the closest Villages to Rochester is one in Ithaca, where a group of residents created Love Living at Home—their Village’s name—in 2016. They worked with the Tompkins County Office of Aging and other local organizations to develop a plan for launching the Village.
“Building a Village from the ground up is hard work,” says Elena Flash, executive director. “You need people deeply connected in the community and with a lot of contacts, and you have to be strategic about what geographic areas to target first. Where are you likely to get the most amount of membership?”
The biggest obstacle to growing membership, cautions Flash, is attitude.
“People say, ‘I don’t need the Village yet. I have my daughter nearby. I have plenty of friends. I go to church. I can still drive,’” she says. “You need to point out to people a reality of life at this stage—that eventually you will need help and if you become part of the Village now and make these connections, it will be easier to ask for help later when you need it. It’s about planning ahead, like having insurance.”
Love Living at Home already has 142 paying members, Flash says. Dues are $450 per individual and $575 per household. So far, most members live in downtown Ithaca and the close-in suburbs, but the group now aims to reach more residents in nearby towns.
A canopy in Buffalo
“Villages are reflective of their local communities and we’re very, very urban,” explains Sasha Yerkovich, executive director of Canopy of Neighbors, a Village based in downtown Buffalo.
Founded in 2011, Canopy’s model differs from that of the typical Village: Volunteers who provide members with rides, home maintenance, and even companionship, are often not themselves members of the Village.
“It’s a model that better fits our urban, low- or fixed-income member base,” Yerkovich explains. “While some of our members do help as volunteers—particularly with neighbors close by—many don’t have cars or have given up driving, and may not have cell phones.
“So instead, our volunteer base is made up of students from college social work or occupational therapy departments, of retired teachers, of people from other community organizations who want to work with seniors. We have intergenerational commingling, and our seniors love to be with the students.”
Currently, Canopy has about 250 paying members. Fees for those with annual incomes above $39,000 are $400; for those with incomes below that, the fee is $120. But membership fees account for just 35 percent of Canopy’s budget; the rest comes from donations by individuals and corporate sponsors, and foundations grants.
Even so, says Yerkovich, “we’re growing faster than we can keep up.”
In a recent year, Canopy volunteers provided more than 10,000 hours of services, including giving more than 4,100 rides to medical and social appointments, and members enjoyed more than 240 hours of social programming. Plans are under way to expand to nearby towns on the hub-and-spoke model, as Canopy builds its volunteer base in those areas.
Says Yerkovich: “We started out in the city center because that’s where the greatest need and concentration of seniors was, but our goal now is to reach further out.”
Villages by the thousands?
One person planning for the future of the Villages movement is Ken Harris, executive director of a century-old charitable foundation, Albany Guardian Society. To educate people in the Albany area about the Villages movement and encourage development of more Villages, Harris and colleagues three years ago formed the Capitol Region Villages Collaborative.
In promoting new Villages, the Collaborative works closely with existing programs that serve seniors and also with the state Office for Aging, which helps fund startup Villages.
“One key in launching new Villages,” says Harris, “is not to duplicate services of existing organizations but to work as partners to fill the gaps, because even the best community services have gaps.”
As examples, he cites transportation services for seniors on evenings and weekends, and the social aspects of building community for seniors. To date, there are two Villages up and running in the greater Albany area—Aging-in-Place Glens Falls and Rhinebeck at Home—a third Village, he reports, is about ready to open. Three more are in development.
“The Villages is kind of a hard concept to grasp, and I think we’re just at the starting point of people understanding the real benefits of the movement,” Harris says. “But we’re working to educate the community. We have two Villages now and I wouldn’t be surprised if in two years we have 20, and then maybe across the whole country we could end up with thousands.”
Eager to help each other
Since I joined the Dupont Circle Village in D.C., I get emails almost daily either from our paid, full-time director or from member-volunteers with information on Village events. Just recently, the email exchange below came through my inbox. I’ll close by sharing it as it nicely demonstrates the willingness—even eagerness—of many Village members to pitch in and help each other:
From the Director: Hi Villagers: We are getting lots of requests for rides, mainly to doctors’ appointments . . . Please let me know if you are not currently a volunteer driver and would like to help our members in this way. Our members, who often do not have easy access to transport, will be so appreciative of your help!
From a Village Member: I would be happy to drive occasionally, but have no car. If the person who needs a ride has a car, but cannot drive her/himself, I would be happy to do it. – Mike.
Peter Lovenheim, a journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected]