Starting a Senior Village in Your Community

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What is a Senior Village?

Aging-in-place is a term that many have heard over the past few years to describe a way of senior living that does not involve moving into a senior retirement community. The seniors of today are a much more active and independent group plus innovative developments make staying instead of moving a more feasible idea.

One of the most innovative developments in senior living is the “village” model. Started in 2001 by a group of Boston seniors wanting to find a way to remain in their homes, the concept has grown to over 200 villages around the United States with another 150 in the formative stages.

The concept of continuing to live in one’s own home is not new. Finding ways to manage it successfully as seniors age, with possibly some health and physical limitations, is the challenge and this is where the village solution can be beneficial. The village is an organization that coordinates the delivery of services, supervision and social events that make staying in the home safe and healthy.

The process of creating a village starts with a group of visionary volunteers coming together and asking the question: “how can our senior residents maintain a safe and fulfilling life while remaining in their homes?”. Through surveys, conversations, and meetings, the interest is assessed. If there is sufficient interest, a membership organization is formed, and dues are assessed to pay expenses and staff who coordinate the delivery of necessary services and other items. The idea sounds simple enough, right?

But the process of moving from an idea to a fully established and operating village involves work and dedication and for some communities, it is not simple. However, the popularity of the village model has spawned an organization that advises and assists communities that are interested in developing a local village.

The First Senior Village: Beacon Hill Village

In 2001, several aging residents of the Beacon Hill area of Boston were considering what they could do to continue living in the area they had grown to call home. They were familiar with the surrounding urban area, where many of them had raised a family. They were reluctant to move to the suburbs where most of the senior retirement communities were based and they did not want to make the painful move that some of their friends had made.

For this pioneering and persistent group, the village idea did not immediately form but morphed through meetings and conversations over several years. Beginning with an offer from a nearby hospital to establish an aging well program, the group continued meeting until they realized that the central wish of all the residents was to stay in their own homes. Even though the hospital could be a good partner, they felt the need for more control of the delivery of needed services. In the early stages the group assumed they would need to construct senior housing, but further discussion led them to conclude that most of the residents only needed help with transportation to medical appointments, household chores, moving furniture and, most of all, access to appealing senior social activities to combat social isolation.

Through the talents and experience of the committee members, an organization was formed. It enrolled its first members in 2002. Today it has grown to nearly 400 members. As word of the success of the Beacon Hill Village spread through media coverage such as a New York Times article by Jane Gross in February 2006 (Aging at Home: For a Lucky Few, a Wish Come True), other communities became interested in this model for their neighborhoods.

Another Innovation: The Village-to-Village Network

The collective knowledge of many village start-ups is now being offered to new communities through the Village-to-Village Network, which was launched in 2010 to support existing villages and to serve as a resource for new village formations.

This organization can make the formation of a village less daunting as it provides guidance to members gleaned from what other villages have learned through the years. The Village-to-Village Network advocates on behalf of villages around the U.S. including other organizations such as AARP, Administration on Community Living at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, White House Conference on Aging and the Select Committee on Aging in the U.S. Senate. Its support focuses on important issues such as housing, funding for programs supported by the Older American’s Act and caregiving. The organization also offers virtual networking and an annual conference at which many village movement stakeholders gather. The 11th Annual 2019 Conference will be held in Chicago on September 18th – 20th.

Village-to-Village Members gain access to benefits that can be instrumental to a community who is in the process of forming a village, including a

  • Document library
  • Networking with other members
  • Forums
  • Webinars
  • Downloadable powerpoint presentations
  • Discounts to tools a village can use to administer a village or offer to members
  • Toolkits, including the Village 101Toolkit, which explains how to start a village from the start, together with an extensive checklist, a Financial Feasibility Tool, and a Fundraising Toolkit.

Barbara Hughes Sullivan, Executive Director of the Village-to-Village Network, ran a local village for eight years before she was recruited to manage the organization. Today she spends a lot of time speaking with communities about how they can start a local village.

Mrs. Sullivan says 2008 was a turning a point for many seniors because the housing market collapsed, and many seniors saw a much of their home equity disappear overnight. That made it clear that staying in their home was their best financial option.  Therefore, the interest of many seniors in 2008 focused on trying to find ways to plan for a future that did not involve selling their current home.

The Village-to-Village Network website includes a map of village locations in the US (and the world). The Washington, DC area has over seventy villages, which is the highest concentration of villages in a metropolitan area. The San Francisco area has over twenty village organizations.

Even though the village model has grown faster in urban settings, suburban areas have also been welcoming to villages. Mrs. Sullivan says the formation of villages in rural areas takes more time, making them less numerous. She points out some successful villages in distinct parts of the U.S., such as one in Denver, Colorado, which is named “A Little Help” (https://www.alittlehelp.org/History). These villages serve Metropolitan Denver, Delta and Larimer Counties which all have “Little Locations”. Delta and Larimer Counties cover more than 3,500 square miles.

Finding ways to serve diverse populations, geographies and socio-economic levels has been made possible largely because a village is almost invariably very specific to a local community and distinct from other villages. This is evident in the Village-to-Village Network Core Principles which promote consensus building, exchange of ideas, shared wisdom, and development of leadership. The Village-to-Village Network becomes a standing forum for the members to share knowledge about issues and successes.

As the village movement grows, regional coalitions are being formed to capitalize on the strength that numbers bring in encouraging age-friendly legislation, state and local funding, and attracting grant resources. Though dues are the main source of funding for the services a village offers, certain costs, such as transportation services and home renovations, can be challenging for a smaller village. Thus, in addition to operating the village, the village leadership often spends time promoting age-friendly government funding for communities.

Steps in Forming a Village

The formation of a village depends heavily on volunteer leadership. A solid volunteer founding committee can identify needs, build a plan and operate the organization.

The phases of developing a village are (1) the survey and assessment phase (2) the organizational phase and (3) the marketing and launch phase. The beginning challenge is to do a community needs assessment and form an understanding of the demographics of the community and the stakeholders. Once defined and the needs are validated, the group moves on to the formation of the organization, establishing a Board, applying for non-profit status, writing a business plan and choosing what the benefits and services will be. This phase is where much of the time and effort of the volunteers must be spent and it is made easier if the group utilizes the experience of other villages that are successfully operating. That is why membership in an organization like the Village-to-Village Network can be extremely valuable. Moving forward towards launch the board will need to hire staff, produce a marketing and communications strategy, do necessary fundraising, and eventually launch.

The timing of the completion of these phases depends heavily on the number of volunteers and the amount of time that they can commit, the size of the area to be served, how hard fundraising might be, and who the partners that the organization has identified.

 “The Village-to-Village Network is committed to building and sustaining thriving villages so a new budding village will not feel alone in its quest to launch a vibrant village.”

– Barbara Hughes Sullivan, Executive Director of Village-to-Village Network

Conclusion

While remaining at home is not possible for every senior, the village concept satisfies the desire of seniors who want to and are able to remain in their home with some help.  Considering this option for a local community requires planning and commitment of visionary and dedicated leaders. The continued growth in the number of people joining local villages indicates that residents are being well served. Through thoughtful planning and coordination with an organization like the Village-to-Village Network, one’s community could be the place where aging-in-place is not merely a dream, but a reality.

Resources

The Village to Village Network Village Map [CLICK HERE] https://www.vtvnetwork.org/content.aspx?page_id=1905&club_id=691012#search_results

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