Aging-in-place "village" networks are on the rise in Montgomery County, and they're being hailed as a successful way to help senior citizens stay in their homes as they grow older.
But the time needed to set up a nonprofit neighbors-helping-neighbors organization is lengthy, and the process can be confusing, a citizens advisory group committee said.
A designated senior village county coordinator would make it much easier for county residents to form senior villages in their neighborhoods, agreed attendees of a March 11, 2013, meeting of the Quality of Life/Public Safety Committee of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board.
At least half a dozen senior villages already are established in the county, and more are in formation, Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, explained at the meeting.
The villages are grassroots organizations that help senior citizens remain in their homes as they grow older, instead of having to leave the area and move, for example, into a retirement community.
Villages typically connect senior citizens needing rides (to the grocery store, doctor's office, etc.) and other simple services (changing a light bulb, shoveling snow, checking the battery of a smoke detector) with nearby residents who volunteer their services for the seniors. Social interaction between seniors and volunteers is a pleasant side benefit for everyone involved.
Villages also serve as social networks for seniors, and arrange meet-ups, lectures, dinners and other activities to combat social isolation. Each village is unique, and is tailored to the specific interests and needs of its community.
The time associated with planning events and matching volunteers up with seniors—and with helping a village to form in the first place—is lengthy. So far, Hartman has been a guiding force for the county's villages, but with new villages forming every year, additional assistance is needed.
Hartman is developing a job description for a county senior village coordinator to support and encourage the village movement in the county.
In Montgomery County, villages exist in Bethesda (Burning Tree Village, Bannockburn Neighbors Assisting Neighbors), Chevy Chase (Somerset Helping Hands, Chevy Chase At Home), Olney and Silver Spring. Villages are forming in the Little Falls neighborhood and in Kensington and Potomac, Hartman said.
The village movement got its start on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1999. Bethesda resident Charles Kauffman sat in on an early planning meeting for the Beacon Hill Village, and has provided insight on the village formation process to Montgomery County villages.
"I think a village coordinator is necessary because ... you can’t do it all"—much of the organization needed to form a village could be coordinated at the county level, Kauffman said.
"We know that the population in Montgomery County is growing older, and we know that we’re going to need more ... support," he added.
Many villages operate on an all-volunteer model, but most find that a subscription-based model is necessary, in order to fund an executive director to organize events and services. For example, Bannockburn operates on an all-volunteer model, Hartman said, while Chevy Chase At Home charges yearly dues.
Chevy Chase At Home started about four years ago, and took about two years to get up and running.
"It was a learning process from start to end—some people never had been part of an organization or business," so there was some tension among founders on how to do things, like apply for 501(c)(3) status, Frances Pitlick, membership director of Chevy Chase At Home, said at Monday's meeting.
Initially, Chevy Chase At Home founders wanted the organization to operate free-of-charge, but "volunteers burned out pretty quickly ... so we hired an executive director" and decided to charge dues, she added. Close to 120 households have paid dues for 2013. (Full membership is $400 for an individual and $500 for a household.)
"We think we’re doing very well and hope to be able to sustain it," Pitlick said.
Training the volunteers is another area in which villages often need assistance, and something with which a county coordinator could help.
And, as Hartman pointed out, villages tend to do well in affluent, semi-urban areas—"that's where you have people with the time and talent to set up a 501(c)(3) out of nothing."
"[We're] not seeing [the villages] in parts of the county with lower per-capita income," an issue that could be addressed by a designated county senior village coordinator.
Are you part of a senior village community, either as a senior or as a volunteer (or as both)? Have you ever tried to set up a senior village? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.