Aging In Place: An intriguing concept for seniors

By Kevin Gardiner, Principal Planner + Urban Designer at M-Group

As the American population ages, development of senior housing strategies and services have been critical to meeting the needs of a growing senior community. From 1990 to 2008, the largest population increase on the national level was seen in the 55-64 year range, up 59.3 percent from less than two decades earlier. It is anticipated that from 2000 to 2020, in the Bay Area, the largest population shift will occur in the 65+ years and older range.

In studies and surveys many people have indicated a preference for remaining in their homes and communities in their senior years, rather than moving to a development or community specific to seniors. This concept, known as “age in place,” has been gaining interest nationally as the large Baby Boomer population demographic ages. Research conducted by AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) has indicated that 90 percent of people want to grow old in their home and community.

While moving to a senior housing development within the same community would be one option, people have been looking at alternatives that would allow them to remain in their existing homes but with access to the types of supportive services that would be found in a senior living situation. Transportation, access to health care, services, and companionship are some of the considerations that need to be arranged as one ages.

Age-in-place programs are sometimes referred to as “Virtual Retirement Villages” or “Villages” for short, referring to a pioneering age in place program called Beacon Hill Village established in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. The “village” is not a place or physical structure, but a collection of neighbors working together. The concept was started in 2001 when neighbors in Boston’s Beacon Hill Village neighborhood decided to band together to help each other with services, social activities, and more, allowing them to live independently in their own homes. Beacon Hill Village has become a model for age-in-place programs across the country, and there are now more than 50 Villages in the U.S.

A Village is a community based membership organization run by the users to provide a variety of services and programs to the members. Some Villages have age requirements, while others do not. Essentially, it is a concierge style service where one phone call can access any service. A board of directors oversees the Village, usually with members of the Village on the board. Beyond provision of services, villages also arrange social and cultural events.

A Village will have preapproved vendors for services who have been screened and qualified, and usually offer a discount to Village members. Services might include home maintenance, transportation, yard work, odd jobs, house cleaning, meal preparation and delivery, legal assistance, telephone check-ins, and healthcare providers. Annual dues are determined but are typically in the range of $600-900 for singles and $900-1200 for couples. Membership dues cover most, if not all, of the expenses. Some Villages fundraise annually to help keep dues low. Others fundraise only the amount needed to get the Village up and running and rely on membership dues after that. Some villages have paid staff members; others are run completely by volunteers. As nonprofit organizations, villages are typically operated by boards of directors that design and administer daily operations.

Organizing and operating such a village takes perseverance and time. Establishing a new Village in would start with community outreach to educate and recruit the public. Generally establishing a Village needs to be a grass roots movement with the end users creating the Village, not the board of directors or a group of vendors. The next step would be to set up focus groups to conduct demographic studies, establish a budget, write a business plan, and develop a handbook. Then the Village would need to establish a board, work with Community Foundations for funding, and establish the Village itself.

The Bay Area currently has two Virtual Retirement Villages: Avenidas Village in Palo Alto, which was formed in 2007, and San Francisco Village which was formed in 2009. Given the interest in the “age in place” concept and the growing senior demographic, there will likely be many more villages established in the near future.