Village People: Community Networks Help Boomers 'Age in Place' 

Illustration by Leif Parsons Close

Illustration by Leif Parsons


Illustration by Leif Parsons

Single and retired, with no family nearby, 64-year-old Lorna Grenadier knows she'll need a better support system if she wants to grow old in her apartment in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where she has lived for 40 years. So she's added community organizing to her list of interests and is helping create a service network she hopes will enable her and others like her to remain in their own homes as they age.

For the past 18 months, Grenadier has been working with other volunteers to research and launch the Foggy Bottom West End Village network. The group aims to provide paying members ($600 a year for singles; $900 for households) a range of services, including transportation and connections to vetted local businesses, as well as serve as a contact point for emergencies. Some of the annual fee will also cover social activities for members.

"It’s also about providing peace of mind," says Grenadier -- a sort of insurance policy should someone need help. In a survey of potential members in the her area, 75 percent said they were interested in the concept, though just 50 percent said they would need the services today. 

Volunteer armies

Such grassroots movements are being launched by baby boomers across the country. “Villages are a recognition that for many people, the traditional structures that provided these services -- nearby family, churches, fraternal organizations -- don’t exist,” says University of California-Berkeley professor Andrew Scharlach, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services and a leading researcher of the village movement. 

The appeal is not just to the elderly, but also to their adult children. “We can be the boots on the ground” for children who live far away, says Katie McDonough, executive director of the Capitol Hill Village, which serves 375 members.

Boston resident Joan Bragen's children live far away, so for the past four years she has relied on the Beacon Hill Village network for rides, plumber recommendations and help organizing closets. "Now that I'm 77, I'm depending on them much more," she says. "They have an incredible Rolodex."

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Village organizers and academics stress there's no single model for how villages operate, but there are common traits. The groups are nonprofits and rely predominantly on membership dues for operating costs, with median annual fees of $420 for individuals and $590 for households. Most villages serve middle- to upper-middle-income households generally not eligible for public assistance programs for the aged.

Villages typically have just one or two full-time employees who manage volunteer armies. The annual dues pay for those workers as well as for expenses that can include office space and equipment and social activities. A national survey by the Rutgers School of Social Work found that, on average, volunteers outnumber members by 4 to 3 and that fewer than 30 percent of village members tap into a service in any given month. It's typical for villages to vet volunteers through commercial background checks. Volunteers who provide transportation typically get a DMV check as well.

Transportation is by far the most popular service provided -- a ride to doctor’s appointments or to the airport, a lift to the grocery store and help shopping, or a ride to visit a friend. The second-most-requested service is home maintenance. Most villages offer a "preferred provider" list of local businesses, home health-care providers and technical assistants. Some businesses offer village members a discount.

Uh-oh moment

The Beacon Hill Village that Bragen uses was the first village to be established. It was born a decade ago during an aha (or uh-oh) moment when a 60-something couple dealing with a winter storm realized, as one of them perched on the roof trying to clear ice, that they could use some help. Now 93 villages are up and running, nearly double the number in 2010. Another 125 are in development, according to Judy Willet, executive director of the Village to Village Network, which was launched three years ago. Its website lists contact information for villages nationwide.

An estimated total village membership of about 10,000 is not going to make the folks at such companies as retirement community giant Pulte quake in their boots. An estimated 300,000 people currently live in a retirement community home built by Pulte division Dell Webb. Also, a big wild card is the reliability and staying power of those volunteer armies, which may come from local community groups, churches, temples and universities. 

Since nearly 90 percent of older folks, however, want to "age in place" rather than go to a retirement community, an assisted-living facility or, ultimately, a nursing home, there could be room for substantial growth in the village movement. New research by Rutgers University and Berkeley's Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services shows that the median membership for villages grew by 33 percent, to 92 members, in the 12 months through January 2012.

As the movement gains momentum, it's beginning to field research to measure the efficacy of services provided. Berkeley's Scharlach says one completed impact analysis of the Concierge Club, which is operated by ElderHelp of San Diego, was promising. The Club has 242 members and a volunteer battalion of more than 280 people. 

“We were able to demonstrate that members had a decrease in unmet needs over a six-month period, an increase in their quality of life and a decline in the number of falls,” says Scharlach. “The challenge for villages will come as members need more help and whether volunteers can meet that need. The potential is tremendous.”

(Carla Fried is a freelance writer based in California.) 

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Suzanne Woolley at

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