For every retiree that packs up and moves to Florida, Arizona or some other warm-weather spot, another four or five prefer to stay right where they are. But as they get older, many people find themselves needing more help, whether it’s a referral to someone who can fix a leaky toilet, a ride to the doctor or simply a few friends to keep them company.
A group called the Village to Village Network is hoping to fill some of those voids and create a way for older Americans to age not just in place but in a community.
“The number one thing that people report is a sense of security, the sense that when they need it, help will be available,” says Andrew Scharlach, the Kleiner professor of aging at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the village movement as part of his research on aging. “It’s that sense that there’s somebody there when you need them.”
The first such village was launched in 2001 in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood by a handful of residents who didn’t want to relocate to Florida, move in with their children or end up in assisted living communities. Today, there are about 160 villages nationwide, each slightly different, but all seeking to provide older Americans the services they need to stay in their homes.
Beacon Hill Village offers exercise classes, cocktail parties, trips to the grocery store, handyman referrals and discounted services, among other things, to its approximately 340 members. Those members also form friendships and organize activities among themselves. Three of the founders are still on the board of directors, and the organization has a small professional staff.
“They really felt like they wanted a single … place where you could get all your needs met – mind, body and social,” Connors says. “One of the most important aspects of the villages is the sense of community that gets created. It’s almost like an extended family in some ways.”
About 20,000 members nationwide belong to a village, and those numbers are doubling every two or three years, Scharlach says. About 160 additional villages are in the planning stage in cities and neighborhoods across the country. “Almost every town in the San Francisco Bay Area has a village or is in the process of forming one,” he says. “It’s an exciting concept, and it’s a lot more exciting than anything else around. This is really about individuals taking their fate into their own hands and creating something that didn’t exist.”
Most villages are run by their members, though a few are part of larger organizations. Some have a small paid staff, and others are run by volunteers. Many groups provide courtesy rides to visit the doctor or go shopping, or volunteers to come over and help out with something simple like changing a light bulb that an older resident can’t reach.
Villages range in size from 25 to 900 people, with the average group serving 140 to 150 households. They are typically based in a neighborhood or part of town, but some serve a wider geographic area. And all villages are virtual, with people staying in their existing homes. Capital City Village, for example, serves all of Austin, Texas, while the District of Columbia has 13 villages so far, with more on the way. Some organizations use a hub-and-spoke model to create smaller villages within a village.
“Each village is a little different,” says Natalie Galucia, director of the national Village to Village Network, which is based in St. Louis. “It’s not a building. It’s not a brick-and-mortar type of village. It’s aging in community vs. aging in place.”
For most villages or would-be villages, the biggest challenges are finding enough talent and energy among volunteers to create the organization and keep it going, plus raising the money required for staff and infrastructure such as newsletters and websites.
Most villages need to engage in fundraising or seek grants to cover startup costs. They typically charge an annual membership fee as well. Beacon Hill charges $675 a year for an individual and $975 for a household but offers discounted rates of $110 and $160 to lower-income seniors. Austin’s Capital Hill Village offers tiers of membership, with annual rates from $100 to $800.
“The challenge is to grow the village so that it’s big enough that it’s financially viable, but at the same time preserve that sense of community and connection,” Scharlach says. “It’s very hard to grow a sustainable organization with volunteers.”
The other challenge has been persuading people to join before they actually need specific services. While those who belong enjoy the social aspects and sense of community, more independent seniors may balk at paying a fee to join if they don’t yet consider themselves “old” enough to so seriously rely on others.
“We find the younger older adults are not as likely to join, or we hear the refrain ‘We’re not ready yet,'” Connors says. “There has been this misconception that you join a village when you need services.”
Here are nine tips for forming a village in your community.
Get information from the Village to Village network. The network provides a Village 101 Toolkit, some of which is available free and the rest of which requires paying to join the network. You can also reach out to other villages near you to learn more about what has worked best for them.
Find out what services already exist in your community. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. If your town already provides free exercise classes, for example, your village may not need to organize those. In addition to using the information on available services to find out where the holes are, create a database of existing services you can share with your members.
Call organizational meetings. You can use these meetings to gauge the interest in your community and to find out what services and activities people would find useful, as well as to spread the word and recruit volunteers.
Find out what talent already exists in your organizing group. Once you know what tools are at your disposal, you’ll have a better idea of what talent you need to recruit or pay for. Scharlach likens starting a village to starting a private school. The group will need legal expertise, as well as expertise in accounting, marketing and other fields.
Decide what services will be provided and who will provide them. Most villages have members who drive other members to doctor’s offices and stores. But in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, where it’s so hard to find a parking space that people don’t want to give them up, the organization has arranged discount transportation rather than free rides from volunteers. Villages typically provide referrals to home repair people and home health care services, and many organize classes, lectures and day trips. Some villages require members to volunteer or provide incentives to do so.
Create a pool of service providers and negotiate discounts. A village is unlikely to provide home health care aides, but sharing information on where to find a good aide or discounts on the services is likely to be valued.
Create a nonprofit and write a business plan. Villages that Scharlach researched covered about 50 percent of their costs via membership dues and did fundraising or sought grants for the rest. If you decide to use a professional staff, you’ll need more money to start.
Spread the word. Recruit members by sharing information about the services and socializing the village will offer. “It’s the social aspect that’s really the primary way that members participate,” Scharlach says. “It’s not just Angie’s List,” he says. “This is a community.”
A version of this story appeared previously at U.S. News & World Report.