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Posted on 5/16/2019
How the Village Movement Can Help
Residents age 60 and over now make up more than 25 percent of Bergen County’s population. With that population expanding and living longer, aging in place has become the rallying cry for those who resist moving into senior housing or retirement villages. Over 350 neighbor to neighbor virtual Villages throughout the United States have become increasingly vital for such older adults – those who want to age in their own home or more affordable housing in their community. One Village member relates how she plays bridge with her friends and volunteers at church and for charities; she continues to drive and remain socially engaged but can’t handle all the household chores she once managed. She lives far from other family members who might offer a helping hand and her financial resources are being depleted.
Baby Boomers are aging with many such cultural changes requiring innovative thinking. Not only are families not living in the same geographic communities but younger neighbors are often pre-occupied with work and kids. We are reluctant to look across the fence to see if an older neighbor is all right because trespassing or violating privacy laws make us tread lightly. Local senior centers remain active, but many retirees shy away from their activities because baby boomers don’t want to think of themselves as old. The underserved moderate income population of those over 60 is expanding. Bergen County municipalities provide them some free or low-cost services, ranging from transportation to nutrition to fitness programs to crisis intervention but they are finding themselves hard-pressed to keep up with the “age wave” while losing their autonomy in the push for sharing services. To meet these cultural shifts and the reality of understaffed government agencies strapped for cash to meet growing demands, the Village movement is bringing a wave of volunteerism and peer-to-peer networking that is gathering strength and proving itself to be sustainable throughout the US.
Lending a helping hand is Villages’ lifeblood. Brigades of volunteers — often only a decade or two younger than the folks they’re helping — provide rides to the doctor or grocery store for members who no longer drive and check in on house-bound older members. They also haul seasonal furniture and equipment out of the basement, connect hoses, and change lightbulbs and smoke alarm batteries.
Some Villages also function as local lobbying groups, advocating for public improvements like sidewalk curb cuts and other “age-friendly” policies. Although sufficient affordable housing in Bergen County is not on the horizon to accommodate the growing numbers, learning more about co-housing models could open doors for some older adults. Most Villages offer referrals, helping members connect with area businesses, care providers, and senior services. And for many, social activities from book groups to lectures to museum visits, are a popular draw. Whether you never married or you were recently widowed or your best friend moved away - and it’s a Saturday night - a local Village lets you meet new neighbors with whom you can enjoy a movie or a play.
In some of the newer villages with less affluent populations, organizers are attempting to bridge cultural differences between diverse communities of immigrants who speak a variety of languages… and immigrants from countries such as India, Uganda, and Guatemala have already set up neighborhood “hamlets” within existing virtual Villages.
These grassroots efforts start with those who feel that they don’t know their neighbors well enough and they care about people falling through the cracks. Or, they start with people who are already helping older adults and worry about what happens when they can’t be there. Other organization efforts are motivated when one member of a group of friends who meet regularly has an accident or gets ill and their life and needs change - overnight… Who can help and when? What are the needs? Finally, how can we insure that, if another member of our group needs help, there is a process in place we will feel comfortable tapping into?
Each village has its own character and structure – working with existing organizations and services and filling in local gaps… Each Village identifies its own governing board and, based on cost of operations, charges its own membership fees and adjusts fees for members of modest means. Some “concierge” villages employ paid staffers, but most rely heavily on volunteers. Each developing Village can benefit from established Villages in the Village-to-Village Network who are sharing what worked and what didn’t as well as sharing the tools they use to maintain Villages in different types of communities.
The challenges are great for this generation, even in Bergen County that is rich in resources for seniors. The Village concept promotes interaction that reduces some of these challenges. There is research cited at the end of this testimony showing that reducing negative stereotypes and reducing social isolation and loneliness impact health of older adults. We believe this Village model and the opportunity it provides to improve their quality of life would be embraced in Bergen County if seeds were planted, nourished, and cultivated by community leaders.
Bergen County Age-Friendly Community Initiatives can include promoting exploration of the Village model. Village services like technical assistance, leaf and snow removal, pet walking, tutoring, and creative projects lend themselves to building bridges between generations and overcoming ageism. (1)
The Mayors Wellness Campaign can include the Village program as a model for averting isolation and loneliness(2) with social and educational programs as well as through affirming the abilities and talents of retired older adults with programs such as working with local hospital and rehab discharge planners to train Village volunteers to transition patients back home.
“When Nauset Neighbors formed nine years ago, the reaction of local officials who provided senior services ‘varied from outright hostile to ignoring us,’ said Dick Elkin, a founding director of the village [with 600 members]. But relations have since warmed, with both parties now referring older residents to services offered by the other and viewing their activities as complementary.”(3)
Lower cost, high impact sharing of resources is an innovative approach - not only for municipal operations and services - but also to maintain the health, wellness, and quality of life of older adults through the Village concept.
Katherine A. Kuzma, CALA, CSA
North Jersey Villages, Inc., Board President (www.northjerseyvillages.org)
Village-to-Village Network, Member (www.vtvnetwork.org)
Bergen County COYL Task Force, Member
(3) Weisman, Robert. “For Some Seniors, a Cultural Shift and a Vital Volunteerism.” Boston Globe, 07 July 2018.