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Villages Offer Services and Community for Bay Area Seniors

Many older Americans today want to age in place. According to a recent AARP survey, 90% of seniors say they want to stay in their homes as long as possible. Aging in place has been shown to have great financial, emotional, and health benefits for seniors, but it can be difficult to actually pull off, as more support may be needed as time goes on. It can also be taxing on family members who may eventually become responsible for managing their care at home.

One promising new model for aging in place is the “village movement.” The concept is simple: seniors in a particular neighborhood or region band together to form a non-profit membership organization -- a village -- whose annual dues help pay for shared services such as transportation, meal delivery, or social activities. Members also commit to helping one another on a volunteer basis. Many villages also recruit non-member volunteers, or hire an administrator to help coordinate the village’s services.

Jacqueline Zimmer Jones, executive director of NEXT Village in northeast San Francisco, says that villages are a good option for middle class seniors, or low-income seniors who have just enough income to take them out of eligibility for government support.

“The middle class, they don’t qualify [for government benefits],” Jones says. “Maybe they were fine when they were working, but now [that they’re retired] they can’t pay for services they need. If you have a lot of money you can buy the services that you need, but if you don’t, you could spend a lot of your resources just trying to get yourself back and forth to the doctor’s, that kind of thing.”

So villages like NEXT try to fill in the gap by fulfilling the needs that will help seniors successfully stay in their homes. At the same time, the mutual support structure of the village also provides an opportunity for members to give back to the community.

Jones describes one member of NEXT who lives in a third-floor walk-up apartment at the top of a hill in North Beach. She receives weekly help with rides to the doctor, the grocery store, and getting her groceries or laundry carried up to her apartment, but this member also gives back by leading art classes for other members.

“There are thousands of stories like that, here in San Francisco -- of people that are limited by the topography, and the geography, and their own apartment buildings,” says Jones.

Beyond the practical help village membership can provide, members often cite opportunities for more social connection as a great benefit of belonging to a village. NEXT hosts classes, lectures, lunches, and outings on a weekly basis.

As attractive an option as villages seem, there are some issues that have been identified. They tend to attract a homogeneous population, mostly white, heterosexual, and middle class. Since they are not a medical model, there may not be adequate support for older members who have more intensive health care needs. Some critics complain that the cost of membership dues put many villages out of reach for lower-income seniors.

That last issue has been helped, in the case of NEXT Village San Francisco, by funding from the City of San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services, which has been used to help subsidize memberships for lower-income seniors, thus diversifying the pool of village members. According to Jones, more than 50% of NEXT’s members are subsidized. But San Francisco is rare in its support of villages, which are still a relatively new, untested model for senior support.

Jones says she would like to see government support for villages increased, as right now many do not qualify under the federal Older Americans Act, which primarily funds programs like Meals on Wheels, senior centers, home-based care, and other interventions aimed at lower-income seniors.

Still, the “village movement” is gaining momentum in the Bay Area, with over 20 villages in the nine-county region, and more in the planning stages.

Jen Chien wrote this story through a Fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, supported by AARP.