When Susan McWhinney-Morse was preparing to retire, the then-65-year-old Bostonian couldn't imagine leaving her home. But she didn't want to burden her family with having to check up on her. She remembered how her sister had taken care of their mother, Alice, in her final years, looking after her at her home until she died there at the age of 103.
“I didn’t want to put my children in that situation,” said McWhinney-Morse, now 81. But traditional elder-care facilities were even less enticing. “In these continuing-care places, I found the antithesis of everything I wanted. I felt trapped there.”McWhinney-Morse wasn’t alone in her desire to age in place. With 11 like-minded neighbors she founded the Beacon Hill Village, a local group for independent seniors to meet and support one other through the elder years. By pooling yearly membership fees, members of the village pay for a small staff that helps them find services like drivers, cleaners, and handymen.
In 2002 they formally launched Beacon Hill village as a nonprofit (despite its name, the village doesn't own any property and has no physical housing component), and today count nearly 350 members. Their example has since spurred more than 170 other villages across the country, a growing experiment in how urban seniors can network with their peers—and empower themselves.
Beacon Hill Village members pay $675 per year ($975 for a couple) to access the seven staffers, who help them get services they need. About one in five area residents make below the median income, so from the start village cofounders have offered a discounted yearly membership ($125 solo or $175 per couple) to one-fifth of village members.
“We don’t provide any direct services,” said Laura Connors, the village’s executive director and its only full-time employee. “We help them figure out how we can make their lives easier. Do they need a ride back from the hospital? Someone to get groceries? Help with the computer, the TV? Help cleaning gutters?” Businesses often give the village discounts for access to a loyal customer base.
But many of the benefits of life in a village are less tangible—members say, above all, villages forge a sense of community.
On a recent September morning, 10 longtime village members gathered over scones and coffee at Beacon Hill Bistro, a cozy breakfast spot just off Boston Common. A weekly tradition since 2007, “Second Cup” finds as many as 20 villagers talking politics each Wednesday in a ritual so familiar to the waitstaff there that they’ve jotted the name on the group’s bill.
As the morning gab wound down, members made plans to meet again that evening, for another regular program put together by the Village: a monthly lecture and Q&A session called “Conversations With” that resembles a college colloquium series.
Member Joan Doucette left to get ready for a show. She and 92-year-old Tina, who didn’t want her last name used, were going to see My Fair Lady at the Lyric Stage of Boston that afternoon. “My husband Harry made me join [Beacon Hill Village] so I could be social and get out of his hair,” Doucette joked.
Research shows Doucette's hobby might actually be good medicine. Jim Lubben, a professor specializing in gerontology and public health at Boston College’s School of Social Work, said social activity can have profound health effects—especially for older people who might otherwise start to feel cut off. “Social isolation is as dangerous to one’s health as smoking,” Lubben said. “Or, alternatively, socializing is as good for one’s health as regular exercise.”
Lubben said the Beacon Hill Village model “is a classic example of how to help people strengthen ties in their community,” although he wondered if it can be replicated in lower-income areas. Nevertheless, he said, “I think it’s to be celebrated.”
And the fact that many villages are in cities, Lubben said, is no coincidence: “What Beacon Hill Village illustrates is that later in life it actually is better in many ways to live in dense, urban areas than out in remote areas, in order to retain one’s functional capacity.”
There are more people over age 65 today than 10 years ago, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By 2040, the agency estimates there will be about 82.3 million elderly Americans, more than twice as many as there were in 2000. Many of them live in metropolitan areas, and the village network looks likely to grow along with their ranks.
In 2010 a national organization called the Village to Village Network emerged to help found new villages and connect existing ones. Natalie Galucia, the network’s St. Louis-based director, said she expects the number of villages to double within two years. The average village has about 100 members, meaning such a rapid expansion would still only reach about 35,000 Americans in all. Galucia said lower-income members are underrepresented in the network at large, and that she and her colleagues hope to change that.
As the model expands across 40 states, managers like Galucia are trying to reconcile exponential growth with an emphasis on neighborhood-scale relationships. Fundraising, too, presents a challenge. By design, membership fees barely cover costs at many villages, including Beacon Hill, so grants and foundations often make up the rest. That presents future villages with a tough choice: commit to the fundraising grind and the uncertainty that comes with it, or raise membership fees and risk shutting out lower-income neighbors.
For some independent seniors, even joining a village seems too big a compromise. “The only person who I can’t convince to do it is my husband,” said Beacon Hill member Ellie Weiss, “because he doesn't think he's old.”
For others, like McWhinney-Morse, villages strengthen a hard-won sense of self-determination—ironically, perhaps, through a group identity.
“We as older people are just as capable of making our own decisions,” said McWhinney-Morse. “You feel that you have a place, and you also have a little power.”