It Takes a Village to Age in Place

A way to stay independent—and remain in your home—as you age

When Janet Swenson enrolled her 87-year-old mother in Lincoln Park Village, a Chicago organization for older people, she was delighted with the results. Suddenly, her mother had help with household maintenance, someone to call for transportation or to find a recommended service provider, and opportunities to make new friends. Swenson, a 59-year-old retired physical therapist with a 16-year-old son, was so impressed that she signed up herself as well. 

Lincoln Park Village is part of a movement by and for people determined to age in place. An AARP poll found that 90 percent of Americans over 65 wanted to remain in their own homes and neighborhoods as they grew older. It’s a choice that can become a challenge for those who develop health problems, but organizations like Lincoln Park Village make it possible by providing services and social support. They’re known as “villages,” but they aren’t a place to live. Instead, members remain in their own homes equipped with a local phone number to call when they need help. 

“My mother had a stopped kitchen sink,” Swenson recalled. “We phoned Lincoln Park Village and they sent over a volunteer, who fixed it. It’s comforting to know the village is there; they are a terrific resource for all kinds of needs. They recommended a roofer and a geriatrician and they helped me review and understand my mother’s long term care policy.”

The village also provides social outlets for residents. Between caring for her son and her mother, Swenson often struggled to find time for herself, but through her membership in Lincoln Park, she enrolled in a class that combined dance and exercise, and a drawing course taught by a professional artist.

A Growing Movement

Since the first village opened in Boston in 2001, at least 125 more have sprung up across the country and another 100 or so are in development. Typically, villages are founded by older people themselves and employ a small staff, though volunteers may pitch in as well. They offer a wide range of services, some covered by the basic membership fee and others supplied by carefully vetted outside vendors. Social events such as potluck suppers, day trips and classes build a sense of community.

Villages aren’t for everyone. Some people have health problems that make it unsafe for them to live alone even with the services that villages provide. Many others, however, give up their homes because such services aren’t available. They’re overwhelmed by dilemmas of everyday life: how to get to the supermarket or maintain contact with friends when they can’t drive, how to change overhead light bulbs when they’re too unsteady to climb a ladder. Reluctantly, they move in with their grown children or enter an assisted living facility. Villages can solve such problems, offering peace of mind to members and their families.

Annual fees run as high as $600 or more per person, but discounted memberships often are available for those with limited means. Some villages thrive in low-income neighborhoods by relying mostly on the exchange of volunteer or bartered services. For example, a resident with plumbing skills will fix a leaky faucet for a neighbor who can help him connect to the Internet. 

Beacon Hill Village

The first village, Beacon Hill Village in Boston, quickly became the model for others. It was founded in 2001 by a group of local residents looking for a way to consolidate services for older adults in that historic neighborhood. Several academics from the Harvard Business School offered to help, but when they searched the world for a prototype, they found nothing.

“We came together with the philosophy that people don’t have to move into a structured community as they get older,” said Susan McWhinney-Morse, one of the village’s founders. She recalled that her mother died at 103 at home; all her friends had gone into retirement communities or nursing homes. When McWhinney-Morse herself considered those alternatives, she was alarmed at the cost and the passive environment where “they feed you, take you to symphonies” and provide for your every need. She was sure she would lose her independence in a place like that. In addition, she said, “Everyone in the group felt that we did not want to be burdens on our children.”

Cohousing with a Spiritual Mission

The ElderSpirit Community in Abington, VA, is modeled on cohousing rather than on villages like Beacon Hill, but it, too, may be part of the wave of the future. It’s one of at least five completed cohousing projects in the United States planned specifically for adults 55 and over, and several more are in development. There are also many intergenerational cohousing communities that welcome older people.

A concept borrowed from the Danes, cohousing combines private living quarters—houses or apartments—with common spaces, usually a building where residents gather to share meals and other activities. Each community is planned from the ground up by its future residents, who often spend years thrashing out the specifics. Each is self-governing, with decisions usually made by consensus, and residents share management responsibilities as well as more mundane chores.

ElderSpirit is the brainchild of five former nuns. In the 1960s, they were part of a group of about 100 nuns, working in Appalachia, who left their order in a dispute with the Catholic Church. A number of them remained in the region to do community service. Eventually, some began to look for a model for retirement. They envisioned an affordable, mixed-income community that would emphasize exploration of the human spirit rather than recreational activities. Cohousing looked like the answer. Over the next 10 years, led by Dene Peterson, they raised $3.8 million and built the community, which opened in 2006.
“I was the most inexperienced developer in the world,” Peterson said. “I was definitely blazing new trails and didn’t have a lot of models.”

The heart of ElderSpirit is its vision statement. Among other things, ElderSpirit emphasizes spirituality, mutual support, a simple lifestyle and respect for the earth. The community is open to men and women of any religion who are 55 or older. Its 29 one-story houses are wheelchair accessible and cluster around a green. Sixteen are government-subsidized rental units for people with lower incomes. A common house provides space for communal meals, meetings and other activities. Homeowners and renters meet regularly to make decisions for the community.

“A good vision statement and a burning soul—plus persistence—are all it takes to create a community like ElderSpirit,” Peterson said.

Today, Beacon Hill Village has a small, paid staff and roughly 350 members, who range in age from 54 to 96. Whenever members need a roofer, a massage, a ride, help with grocery shopping or many other things, they call a central number. The village also offers exercise classes, walking groups, trips to museums and more. The annual fee is $675 per individual or $975 per household, but it’s much less for the 20 percent of members with limited incomes: they pay $110 for individuals and $160 for households and also receive a credit of $250 a year to pay for services not covered by the fee. 

In 2010, in response to requests for advice from all over the country, Beacon Hill founded the Village-to-Village Network, a national organization, now in partnership with many of the villages, that provides information and technical assistance to people who want to create new ones of their own.

Community Without Walls

The Community Without Walls (CWW) in Princeton, NJ, emphasizes community more than services. Founded in 1992 by four individuals determined to age in place, it now has about 450 members who live in or near Princeton. They’re organized into six “houses” of roughly 65 to 100 individuals each, to make it easier for members to develop a sense of community and provide mutual support.

Each house has general meetings where members share their talents or expertise or listen to outside speakers, but most other activities that go on are organized by interest groups that the houses spin off. Some groups go to movies or restaurants together, for example; others share potluck dinners or have begun to write about their lives. In each house, a few individuals coordinate volunteers who step in when needed—to provide a ride to a doctor’s office, for instance. Newsletters help everyone keep track of what’s going on. Annual fees are different for each house but range from $15 to $30.

Because volunteers can’t provide all the help some individuals need, CWW suggests that its members join an organization called Secure@Home, a clearinghouse for many of the same home services that villages like Beacon Hill offer. Its annual fee is $300 ($350 per couple), but many services are extra. 

Secure@Home puts more emphasis on potential medical problems than most villages do. It begins with an assessment of each new member’s home and health, provided by a geriatric care manager. Then, if the person is taken ill, Secure@Home finds helpers (for extra fees) to handle everything from delivering food or medicine to collecting mail for someone who’s hospitalized and assisting with plans for hospital discharge and a safe return home. Secure@Home also offers wellness programs, has a helpline to support caregivers and is available in emergencies 24/7. It is a nonsectarian initiative of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Mercer County. 

Capitol Hill Village

Capitol Hill Village (CHV), one of six villages in the Washington, DC, area, is unusual in two ways: volunteers provide about 80 percent of its services, and a third of those volunteers are 30 or younger. There’s no age limit for joining CHV, though most of its members are older adults.

CHV serves the Capitol Hill neighborhood and offers about 50 different services. Paid staff coordinate the efforts of volunteers and outside vendors. When members request help, staffers look for volunteers first. If none are available, they contact vendors. A “Rise and Shine” program pairs up members who agree to check in with one another once a day by phone, just to make sure that all is well. The village also offers lectures, museum visits, potluck suppers, book club meetings and more.

Since Capitol Hill Village began operating in 2007, its membership has grown to over 300 people. Current annual fees are $530 for individuals and $800 for households of two or more, but those who can’t afford the standard fees may qualify for a discount.

The Wave of the Future?

Villages are an appealing model for the future. They make it possible for people to spend their later years in their own homes, something most Americans want to do. Because villages are created and organized by older people who want to preserve their independence—rather than by social service agencies—they are uniquely structured to meet the needs of their membership. What’s more, village membership fees and the price of coordinated outside services add up to a fraction of the cost of living in a retirement community, assisted living facility or nursing home.

Perhaps the most valuable thing a village can offer is a sense of community. They’re called “villages” because the early founders were thinking about the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” They concluded that it also takes a village to provide comfort and safety for older adults.

To look for a village near you, click here.