For some, it takes a ‘village’
Nonprofit support groups in Boston and across the US offer services for seniors
Ten years ago, Susan McWhinney-Morse had no desire to leave her longtime Beacon Hill home and neighborhood just because she and her husband were retired and growing older.
The expectation then, as it is now, was that retired people sold their homes, then moved to Florida or some other retirement-like community where they would be surrounded by other senior residents.
“But my little slogan was ‘No, no, I won’t go!’ ’’ said McWhinney-Morse. “I love where I live, and I felt strongly about a society that takes the elderly and warehouses them.’’
Today, McWhinney-Morse, 78, still lives at her Temple Street home, partly because she and other neighborhood residents helped start “Beacon Hill Village,’’ a nonprofit support group designed specifically to help older people stay in their homes and communities.
Beacon Hill Village has grown to nearly 400 members throughout Boston. Their annual dues - $925 for a household, or $640 for a single person - get them a wide variety of support services, from drivers for doctor appointments to hiring screened repairmen. It has spawned 78 other “village’’ groups across Massachusetts and the United States, and similar organizations overseas, in Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.
And a recently formed national organization - the Village to Village Network - is also in talks to open 150 more villages across the country.
“This is a common sense movement that comes from elderly organizers themselves,’’ said Judy Willett, the former director of Beacon Hill Village and the new national director of Village to Village, which is based in Newton. “Ultimately, it’s elderly volunteers who organize each village, and every [group] has roughly the same values and same core goal of helping people stay in their homes.’’
Though some groups allow people 50 and over to join their village, most organizations set the age limit at 60 and up.
Another group, Cambridge At Home, launched in 2007 and now affiliated with Village to Village, has 325 members in Cambridge, Belmont, Arlington, and Watertown, according to executive director Kathy Spirer. Its offerings include a “one call’’ phone service where staff help members with requests that can range from how to hire a snow plow operator to dealing with health insurance issues. Dues also cover grocery deliveries, provided by a transportation company, and a free driving service for members - handled by volunteers - to get to medical appointments or the pharmacy.
For an additional fee, members can access a screened list of home service providers, including plumbers, electricians, handymen, physical therapists, home health care assistants, tailors, gardeners, and others. After interviewing each participating vendor, Cambridge At Home secures 10 to 15 percent price discounts from them for its members.
John and Jeanne McCarthy, both 80, joined Cambridge At Home to remain in the three-bedroom home in Arlington where they have lived home for 52 years.
“We haven’t really needed many of the services - not yet,’’ said Jeanne McCarthy. “We have great neighbors and friends in Arlington, and we want to stay here as long as possible. Cambridge At Home is almost like a back-up insurance plan for us in case it gets difficult.’’
Like other villages, Cambridge At Home hosts social events that include luncheons with guest speakers, day trips to local museums, and book and poetry reading sessions.
But membership fees are not always cheap. Every village sets its own fees; Cambridge At Home’s annual fee is $900 for individuals and $1,200 for households. But it also provides steep discounts for low- and moderate-income members - $100 for individuals and $150 for households.
Discounts are common because the village groups are adamant about recruiting members from all walks of life, said Willet. Village officials also note that many affluent members often make large donations to help offset overall costs. Each village also can accept tax-free donations from foundations and similar organizations.
In some cases, membership fees are paid for by the adult children of the elderly, as a sort of “peace of mind’’ plan for themselves and their parents, organizers said.
Other village groups in the region include ones in Newton, Bedford, Wellfleet, North Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard, and Wellesley. Willett said more groups in Massachusetts are under development.
William Johnston-Walsh, state director of the Massachusetts chapter of AARP, said individual village chapters seem to be making a genuine effort to make their groups open to people from all walks of life.
“What they’re doing has become a model of how to care for the elderly who want to stay in their homes,’’ said Johnston. “It’s not the only option out there for people, but it’s an important option.’’
Though other nonprofit and government organizations offer similar services for seniors, such as senior centers found in many towns, the focus of Village to Village is to keep people in their homes, said Johnston-Walsh.
“Sometimes an elderly person only needs a little help, like someone changing a light bulb on the ceiling,’’ said Johnston-Walsh. “But it’s those little things, if they can get the help, that can keep people in their own homes,’’ she added.
Having lived in their home for more than 40 years, McWhinney-Morse and her husband, David, also 78, have used a number of Beacon Hill Village’s recommended services, including the use of young volunteers who helped them move furniture. “It’s been enormously helpful,’’ said McWhinney-Morse.
Beacon Hill resident Roger Cox, 81, a retired engineer and sales executive, said he and his wife, Susan, 79, joined Beacon Hill Village not just for its services, but to make friends.
“There’s much more dignity to living in your own home,’’ said Cox. “We’ve been very happy with it. This is the kind of thing I think you’re going to see more and more of in the future. It works and it’s what people want and need.’’
Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.