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Senior villages weave a safety net for older adults

Jen Chien
Members of NEXT Village San Francisco hard at play.

California leads the nation in its population of senior citizens. The ratio of working-age adults to those over 65 is projected to plunge inthe next few decades. Meanwhile, the need for financial and social support for this growing number of older adults presents new challenges for our society and our economy. One of the most pressing issues facing seniors is isolation.

One promising new solution 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 can also contribute by volunteering to help other members. Many villages also recruit non-member volunteers, or hire an administrator to help coordinate the village’s services.

NEXT Village San Francisco was founded in 2009 by a group of neighbors in the northeast region of the city. They had read about the village concept in the New York Times, and thought it would be a great option for themselves. They were all in their 60s and 70s at the time, and wanted to stay in their own homes as they got older. That’s known as “aging in place”.

Marie Mansi is a member of NEXT Village. She’s 77, but looks younger, with curly hair and a vivacious smile. She says the village is a way for her to make and maintain social connections in the city.

“I lived in the same apartment building for 26 years. And I don’t know anybody. I know two people in the building,” says Mansi.

Mansi says it seems like everybody these days, young and old, is too busy to really get to know their neighbors.

“I think [the] village is definitely taking the place of a lot of the ‘hometown’ stuff that happened. That’s what we’re doing -- we’re creating, you know, villages. And it takes one!” Mansi laughs.

Harvey Hacker is a founding member of NEXT, and says the village creates two sets of opportunities: “an opportunity to receive a hand when you need it, but at least equally important, an opportunity for you to give a hand.”

This concept of mutual aid is one of the most innovative aspects of the village model. Members are encouraged to also be volunteers. Through the phone, email, or in-person visits, the village coordinates rides, referrals, and social activities. These are the little things that can help someone age in place. Studies have shown aging in place has great financial, psychological, and health benefits. But it can be hard to pull off, as people need more and more services as they get older.

Villages address needs that government can’t

Jacqueline Zimmer Jones is the executive director of NEXT. She says villages are not just a support for aging in place, but they also tackle the limited economic mobility of middle-class seniors. Many older adults bring in just enough to take them out of eligibility for government benefits.

“If you have a lot of money, you can buy the services that you need,” says Jones. “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.”

And in San Francisco, issues around aging are compounded by astronomical housing costs. For some, aging itself means aging in place. There’s nowhere else to go.

“A lot of people live in rent-controlled apartments,” says Jones. “And if they had to move, they couldn’t, because where would they move? Where would they come up with the down payment, and the first and last? That’s just not going to happen. They have to stay where they are, no matter what."

Where they are is often an apartment building -- with stairs, or far from public transportation. Jones says there are some publicly-funded services that address these individual needs, but the village offers something different.

“Loneliness is an incredible contributor to poor health. So we want to change that,” says Jones. “We’re changing that. With these connections that we build, and these friendships that we build. We’re not a medical model, we’re not a nutrition facility, we’re not in-home healthcare … so we just fill a niche that federal programs can’t possibly fill.”

That’s why villages are so interesting to Anne Hinton, head of San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services.

“We’ve got this growing, growing, aging population,” says Hinton. “We have really no ability to fund the number and level of programs that would be needed to really provide for this population.”

Hinton’s department has awarded $250,000 of grant money to NEXT Village over the past few years to help them provide for this population. That’s actually pretty rare; most villages don’t get any government help. Hinton says there is great promise for the village model to become a non-government-funded solution for seniors, but they can’t always get there on their own. That’s where the city’s funding can help.

“I think it’s well worth the investment. It’s not that much money, frankly, in the scheme of all the things that we do."

Villages are an evolving model

Senior villages are relatively new. The first one started in Boston in 2002, in Beacon Hill, one of that city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. As the model has spread, one criticism has been they tend to attract a homogeneous population -- mostly white, heterosexual, and middle- to upper-class. Some complain that membership dues put villages out of reach for lower-income seniors.

NEXT village has been using some of their city grant money to diversify its membership. According to executive director Jones, more than 50% of NEXT Village’s members are subsidized.

There are several levels of membership, with different pricing for different levels of benefits. Jones says this not only helps bring different kinds of people into the mix, it also encourages them to join even if they don’t need any services yet.

“That’s really what you want, for people to get on board early, and support the village so it’s there when they need it. Not just say, ‘I don’t need it, I don’t need it,’ and then say, ‘Oh I broke my wrist, I need it.’ You want people to help build the community, so it’s there for everyone,” says Jones.

Scrabble Time

Community, like the one being built in the common room at North Beach Senior Apartments. About a dozen people, diverse in age and ethnicity, gather at round wooden tables to play Scrabble. Games are heating up. NEXT puts on this lunch event every month. It draws a regular crowd, but there are also some new faces today. 

NEXT member Harvey Hacker says this kind of event is one of the best benefits of being a part of the village.

“You don’t make friends by going out and saying, ‘I want to have friends,’” says Hacker. “You find that you get involved with a group effort that is directed at something larger than any of the individuals, and then you look up six months later, and discover ‘Whoa, I’ve got some friends here!”

These friends together weave a safety net, strong enough to hold each other through whatever comes next.

This story was produced through a Fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, supported by AARP.  NEXT Village is one of about 20 villages in the Bay Area. For more information about the village movement, visit the Village to Village Network.

Jen Chien was the managing editor for Crosscurrents and KALW News from 2016 to 2018. She has been a contributor to All Things Considered, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, BBC/PRI’s The World, Making Contact, SF Public Press, East Bay Express, New America Media, and KPFA in Berkeley, where she took part in the First Voice Apprenticeship Program. She is the recipient of the 2013 Outstanding Emerging Journalist Award from the Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California. She holds a BA in American Studies from Smith College, and an MA in Interdisciplinary Performance from New College of California. Before entering the field of journalism, she had a successful career as a professional dance and theater artist, teacher, and massage therapist.