Virtual villages, non profits powered by a very small staff that recruits and organizes 100's of local volunteers, bridge the gap between the needs we encounter as we age, receding aging services provided by governments, and services offered by for-profit retirement and assisted living communities. Membership in a village is simple. It doesn't require a move, compel you to fill out forms or ask for conformity. Need help? Villages provide members with a single number to call for all professional referrals, questions, and services. They're easy.
Neighbors helping neighbors isn't a new concept. Organizing neighborhood volunteers and uniting them under a mission of assisting elders to stay in the houses they love puts a new grassroots yes we can spin on the old idea. Villages bond neighborhoods and strengthen sense of community. They enhance "aging in place" lifestyles by developing a local relationship infrastructure that facilitates "aging in community." The founding member of the first village, Beacon Hill, in Boston, said, in retrospect, "What we ended up creating was a system that enables us all to take care of ourselves and that's a very important distinction from the Social Service industry that says they'll take care of us. Because it really gives us the freedom of choice, the freedom of movement, and the freedom to be who we want to be."
Beacon Hill Village was established at the turn of the 21st century anticipating the wave of boomer retirements and increasingly longer lives. It's the model used to establish independent village identities across the United States and it portends a larger visionary movement to change the systems that support aging America. Today, there are villages in all but six states. Each is uniquely suited to neighborhood needs, culture, and characteristics. NEST, a village on the west coast, in Seattle, Washington, is just two years old. "Something really cool is happening in Seattle's aging community," NEST's executive director, Judy Kinney, said reflecting the energy of sweeping change and optimism that began in Boston in 1999. Using the resources of the Village to Village network, created to foster a national grassroots movement after Beacon Hill's success, the NEST Village fits into a spectrum of creative aging services developing in Seattle including legal and organizational support for conscious dying.
The Village movement in America, in many ways, both revisits history, where elders were often cared for by community, and fits into a continuum of civic experimentation with living structure. Communes, for instance, popular in the 60's, never disappeared in America. Ganas, on Staten Island, is an inter-generational community whose members run a shared business. Another model, co-housing, is comprised of groups (7-70) of single family houses that locate proximal to a center. They promote looser cooperative living than communes with various degrees of common property and space. Many co-housing groups are adapting or developing as a way to ensure support and safety for members aging in place. Both of these models are based on a philosophy of "intentional living."
Virtual Villages parallel the well developed concept of "intentional community" by bonding people around a single principle- supporting elders and empowering them to live independently! They cast a larger localized reach than communes and co-housing communities and draw together lives many of which have been lived 'intentionally' independent. Typically they boundary less than a 20 mile radius--- in cities that's 1-4 neighborhoods. In other areas, like Monadnock, in New Hampshire, the village spans 6 towns.
In the spirit of community, villages offer more than just important practical household help. Many villages sponsor tours, speakers, coffee and tea gatherings or seasonal events. Some present classes, workshops or recreational opportunities. All focus on social enrichment, well being, and building bonds between members. They also strengthen connections with the wider community. Many villages host annual celebrations bringing volunteers and members together and most appeal to local businesses who offer financial help and, occasionally, discounts. Villages draw on the collective energy of neighborhoods to nurture and support us as we age in place.
The spread of the Village movement testifies for its need. People are increasingly choosing to age at home and grow old in the neighborhoods they know and love. Villages, showcasing the power of neighborhood involvement, are successfully meeting their needs. Much is said of how boomers are re-inventing aging but villages demonstrate that real transformation happens when generations come together to meet challenges. America may not know how it will cope with the coming age wave but Villages, a new model for aging, give us hope and inspiration.
Update March 2015: Great article on communitarian living in later life with rich links to other articles about aging in place or aging alone.
Update April 2015: US News explores the variety of living arrangements aging boomers are developing.