Seniors Finding That It Does Take a Village

A new type of retirement community is taking root across the country.


Older people who want to stay in their homes as they age might look to an expanding network of "villages" throughout the country as one possible way to get the support and services they need. The villages are part of a broader movement involving what are called naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs. These are virtual communities that provide a mix of transportation, home maintenance, and social and healthcare services to their members, who usually live within a few miles of one another.

[See NORCs: Unique Havens for an Aging America.]

Some NORCs are tightly structured, but many are not, reflecting the different residential settings and needs of their members. NORC residents are generally age 65 or older and intend to stay in their homes. As they age, they increasingly need a tailored social safety net that is best fashioned by people in their communities who are intimately familiar with their needs. Some programs are government funded, most scurry for philanthropic and volunteer help, and others rely only on member dues and fees.

Villages tend to be developed, funded, and managed by core groups of older residents. They usually do not have strong government ties and do not directly offer healthcare services. Members tend to be relatively well-off, and annual dues for village programs often run several hundred dollars and can approach $1,000. Most villages hire one or two staffers who recruit and manage volunteers to help members. Villages also develop and oversee a network of merchants and service providers who offer discounts to members. Beyond the discounts, vendor networks can become trusted providers that protect seniors from being exploited in making home-repair and upkeep decisions. Annual village budgets range from as little as $50,000 to several times that amount.

The history of NORCs dates to the mid-1980s when Michael Hunt began noticing senior enclaves in Madison, Wis. Now a University of Wisconsin professor of design studies in the School of Human Ecology, Hunt was curious about the areas, which seemed to magically draw senior residents and senior-oriented stores and services. He literally buttonholed cab drivers and visiting nurses to find out more about these elderly people and where they lived. Hunt found three reasons for the phenomenon that he later named NORCs: First, people, primarily widows, were moving to places where they had social ties and would find companionship; second, they sought competent apartment managers who preferred seniors to students and were sensitive to their needs; and third, they sought places that were relatively friendly to their lifestyles and physical limitations. From a design standpoint, Hunt realized that without a sense of community, "you can design a perfect house for an older person, but they can become a prisoner in that house."

Hunt says villages are the truest reflection of what he saw in the 1980s. The village model takes its name, and much else, from Beacon Hill Village, a Boston program that has received prominent media coverage and has become a leader in demonstrating how to create successful villages. There is an evolving Village to Village Network, which ties together nearly 50 villages throughout the country and shares lessons about what works and what doesn't. Many of these village programs were created by people who attended a 2007 conference sponsored by Beacon Hill Village. This week, about 200 people attended another Beacon Hill Village meeting, held in Washington, D.C., and sponsored by AARP and NCB Capital Impact, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit involved in financing and community development activities.

[See Is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Right for You?]

As speakers shared their experiences, several themes emerged about steps that need to be taken to create a sustainable village:

Time. It invariably takes a lot longer to launch a village than people think. Make sure timetables are realistic.

Founders. Many villages began with a core group of six to eight people. These founders need to be passionate and have a shared vision of creating their village and helping their neighbors, several speakers said. Don't try to move too quickly, but take the time to make sure everyone is on board. This founding group often becomes the nucleus of a board of directors. That broader group should incorporate lots of skills that the village needs, including business management, fundraising, and membership development experience.

Organization. Have a business plan before you begin, not after (although at least one village founder says his group's leaders were too busy to do a plan and are just now getting around to it). Become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Make sure you have liability insurance for village directors and for volunteers. Directors and officers (D&O) policies are a common solution.

Funding. Explore founders' grants (tax deductible once nonprofit status has been achieved) to raise early funds. Some villages had charter memberships that might bring in more than one year's dues right away and can also include a tax-deductible donation. Consider deferring operations until you have your first year's budget in the bank.

Help. Being affiliated with an area institution can jump-start a village, provide credibility and access to free or inexpensive resources, and offer the comfort that you have a partner. The institution might be a hospital or other medical facility, a college, a social-services agency, or another organization that deals regularly with older people.

Internet. Build a website early in the process. The site can be an effective calling card in efforts to help market the village and an invaluable and cost-effective communications tool to support village operations.

Management. "The most important decision is picking your executive director," said Andy Mollison, president of Palisades Village, located in Washington near the Potomac River. Salaries are not large, so you need to find someone for whom the work is a true calling. Because members can call at any time, the director needs to be available. And because money is always tight, the director needs to be effective at getting resources for little or no money.

Membership. Intimate knowledge of the community and its residents is essential. Creating an effective marketing message can be challenging, as many retired people simply don't think they need help. While the image of providing insurance may be a far cry from the passionate mission with which village founders pursued their visions, it can be a good metaphor for how to describe the value of village membership. "I think you have a real marketing job" to attract members, said Nancy Myers Coolidge, one of Beacon Hill Villlage's founders. "We had people in their late 80s and early 90s who said they weren't quite ready yet" and didn't need village services. Martin Davis is a board member with Kalorama Village, also located in Washington. He said members simply haven't been calling very often to use village services. "Our members see us as AAA; they hope they never have to use us."