It takes a village to stay connected as we age

Published on Wed, Feb 12, 2014 by Nathan Dalla Santa

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As people grow older, they are increasingly staring down the question of where they will age. Options are often limited, and while some may to turn to assisted living programs or seek help from their children to find security in their living situation,  the vast majority of seniors tend to agree on one thing - they would prefer to remain  in their own home during their golden years.

The problem is, as people advance in age, it becomes more difficult and sometimes more dangerous to stay at home, 
especially without assistance.

“You can depend on your kids,” said 65-year-old Jon Shaughnessy of Bellingham. “But you need to have a plan B, no matter how sweet they are.”

Shaughnessy’s children live out-of-state, so he doesn’t plan on them helping him as he gets older. Additionally, he doesn’t envision himself in an assisted care facility any time soon. Instead, Shaughnessy is starting a village.

The Village movement began in 1999 in Boston, Massachusetts when a group of neighbors decided they didn’t want to leave their homes as they grew older. The group of 11 formed a committee and established monthly dues. With their cooperation and funds, they arranged for assisted transportation, discounted services and social activities. After two years of honing the details, the Boston village opened up for public membership and now, more than a decade later, their group thrives with more than 300 members.

Since the Boston village’s inception, villages have begun popping up across the nation, and even internationally, with more than 120 villages in operation.

Members of the village determine what services are offered and no two villages are identical, Shaughnessy said. Some villages are volunteer-based, relying on altruistic neighbors who are willing to donate their time and skills. Other villages negotiate discounted services with local vendors. 

“Not too many people will volunteer to mow a bunch of old people’s lawns, but someone might agree to give discounts to 
elderly people,” Shaughnessy said. “We want to create relationships that benefit both members and non-members.”

Shaughnessy sees the village movement as a viable alternative to institutional living in assisted care facilities, which are wrought with inefficiencies, he said. The first problem Shaughnessy sees with assisted care facilities is financial.

The cost of living in an assisted living home doesn’t make sense compared to that of a village, Shaughnessy said. While care facilities can cost around $1,000 per month, the Whatcom village will charge monthly dues of around $100 per person, depending on the individual’s financial situation.

“Why are we allocating resources for senior housing?” Shaughnessy said. “Most of us already have a home to live in and it’s paid for. We might need to have a grab bar or something installed, but that’s usually it.”

Katharine Danner, director of Ashland at Home, a village in Oregon, has doubts about the ability of care facilities to accommodate the growing numbers of seniors. With the baby boomers growing older, she says, care facilities won’t be able to keep up with the demands of the marketplace. Long term stays in care facilities may become increasingly difficult to come by.

In addition to the financial burden of paying to live in an assisted living facility, Danner worries about seniors losing connections with the community, she said.

“Quality of life, as we age, will only be maintained if we stay connected with our communities,” she said. “The village movement has been a very successful template for keeping that connection.”

Shaughnessy’s village vision is still in the exploratory phase, gaging public interest, determining what services are most needed and, most importantly, whether the village will be based in Bellingham or spread throughout Whatcom County. He hasn’t overlooked the possibility of including Blaine and other towns throughout the county, but he worries about providing services from too great a distance.

There is a concept among villages called the “hub-and-spoke” system, Danner said. The hub, normally a well-established village, provides the backbone for administration while nearby communities form their own villages that work with the hub. This way, new villages don’t need to put the effort into applying for non-profit status and the process is greatly expedited. Shaughnessy believes this could be a viable option for spreading the village concept throughout Whatcom County.

“There’s a limit to how far people are willing to travel to help another person, but people in rural Whatcom County probably need help more than anybody,” Shaughnessy said. “It might not make sense for someone in Blaine to join a village specific to Bellingham, but there are a lot of people up there in Blaine and they could certainly start their own village.”

Danner and Shaughnessy will be speaking at an open conference at 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 20 at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center. Danner will discuss her experiences as director of Ashland at Home and Shaughnessy will discuss efforts to establish the Whatcom Village.