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Planning Ahead: Communities for a Lifetime

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One of the leaders of our Maryland Community of Practice, Muriel Cole, has shared the following article about Communities for a Lifetime and the Village Movement. Muriel, one of the Founders of one of the early Village Programs, HomePorts in Chestertown, Maryland, has been working with communities to improve opportunities for older adults to provide leadership as they to age well, bringing her professional training and expertise in gerontology to help foster positive new models.   We are able to share her article, reprinted by permission of the Kent County News.   We are grateful she has shared these insights with us.

Communities for a Lifetime

Muriel Cole-Home Ports- Kent County MD

Do you want to be able to stay in your home or community as you age? Have you thought about what you – or your elderly parents – would do if you needed a little extra support to help make this happen?  Many of us are worried about this next chapter in life. What’s ahead? Are there changes happening in our society that we can benefit from?

Columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times that technology will allow the 21st century economy to be “powered by people” rather than by corporations.  We marvel at how technology has made the world so much smaller and its inhabitants so interconnected.  Friedman sees this transformation as good news, noting that trust increases as we can know more about each other, see each other, and have lives that are more and more transparent.

He quotes Brian Chesky, a co-founder of Airbnb, a popular web site listing rooms to rent worldwide, “I think we are going to move back to a place where the world is a village again – a place where a lot of people know each other… and everyone has a reputation that everyone else knows.”

This new way of thinking is popping up more and more. NPR recently reviewed a new book titled The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter. For older adults the idea of a “village” is apparently particularly good news. The innovative aging-in-place “village” movement captures Chesky’s vision.  Nation-wide there are 140 independent, community-based Village organizations in 40 states, with 120 more under development.

These Villages are non-profit grass roots organizations established within a community to give members access to a wide range of services for remaining safely and confidently in their own home. HomePorts resources, for example, include a cadre of 60 volunteers, and referrals to reliable service providers for transportation; interior and exterior home maintenance; grocery & meal services; personal assistance & trouble shooting; and health & wellness.  Additionally, members promote community services and encourage joining social, educational, and cultural activities as well. Annual fees vary, with many offering financial aid to those with limited incomes.

Considered a wave of the future, the first one in Boston, known as Beacon Hill Village, has been in operation for over ten years.  “Clearly, the member-driven, self-governing, and self-funded features of the Village concept struck a chord with those dealing with the next phase of their lives,” according to Susan McWhinney-Morse, a founder of Beacon Hill Village.

According to the national Aging in Place Council, in the past, if someone had difficulty living by themselves, it was a signal that now was time to move in with family or go to a nursing home. But, for most people, that no longer is the case. Today, we can live on our own for many years, even as we grow older and start needing help with everyday tasks. However, success requires some careful planning. Access to and membership in a village can be a significant part of that plan.

Reliance on friends and family can be stressful, uncertain, and guilt-inducing. Membership in a Village is lifestyle insurance, paying for that peace of mind that comes with the confidence that help can be available.

Earlier this month I attended the annual conference of the national Village-to-Village Network and came away more enthusiastic than ever about the concept. It was impressive to see almost 300 people, mostly retirees traveling at their own expense, willing to spend their time discussing, informing, and strengthening this self-help movement.

Early cost-benefit studies are showing that membership in a Village can save money for seniors and for taxpayers by making transportation and services more efficient, while lowering overall health care expenditures. Among the preliminary findings of a University of California at Berkeley study are benefits showing:

*A reduction in falls, due to volunteer assistance available

*More appropriate and effective use of health services, because of easier access to medical appointments and information

*Decreased use of residential facilities, since members may remain stronger longer

*Greater safety and security, in general

*Greater confidence in members’ ability to live independently

National conference organizers also cited reduced isolation. Their surveys show that 60% of members feel more connected with other people, 79% know more people than they used to, and 82% are more likely to know how to get assistance when they need it.

“We need to become more age-sensitive and age-friendly,” said Vincent Gray, Washington, D.C. Mayor, who spoke at the conference. “The power of Villages is increasing daily. People can get taken advantage of. Villages are service advocates. Another beauty of a Village is its extensive use of volunteers,” according to Gray, whose city includes 14 Villages.

Leaders of the twenty or more Villages in Maryland are now leading a state-wide effort, driven by research at the University of Maryland, to establish a “Communities for a Lifetime” Program.  Such a program is outlined in State Senate Bill 822, from 2011.

With support, advocacy, and purposeful effort by all ages, your community could proudly be in the forefront, as one of the first to be designated as a Community for a Lifetime.

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