What Seniors Should Expect from Aging in Place Villages

Beacon Hill Village, first neighborhood support group for seniors, looks for new solutions to elder needs.

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BOSTON—In 2001, a group of seniors got together in the Beacon Hill neighborhood here and began developing a network of support services to help older residents remain in their homes. The effort grew into the nation's first "village" program to support a concept that has now come to be known as "aging in place." Back then, however, it was just a bunch of neighbors looking to help each other, maybe leverage their numbers to earn product discounts, and provide mutual support.

An old man sitting on a white bench in a beautiful walled garden.
An old man sitting on a white bench in a beautiful walled garden.

It sounds simple enough, but Beacon Hill Village was so far ahead of the curve that it took a full five years, officials say, before the nation's second village opened its doors. Since then, more than 85 villages have opened throughout the country and another 120 are in development, according to a 2012 study by the Rutgers School of Social Work.

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Now, in 2013, as people continue to look to Beacon Hill Village for leadership, the program's own leaders have decided it's time for them to pivot and perhaps reinvent a new type of village.

What's changed in 12 years? Senior issues have steadily moved front and center on the national agenda. The capabilities of the elderly haven't necessarily changed, but perceptions about what it means to be old have changed a great deal.

"We wanted to stay in our own communities" in the beginning, says Laura Connors, who recently became the new executive director of the program. "That was 10 years ago."

Today, village board member Dan Taylor observes, the new strategic plan being developed for Beacon Hill Village may turn that objective on its head. One mission under consideration is for the village to become committed to helping residents get out of their homes and out into the community. "We want to try to engage people with more active things," he says. "People are more open to things that aren't simply late-life or end-of-life things."

"Aging is fabulous," says Connors. She spent decades with a large health insurer but was drawn to working with seniors after caring for her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. "Three months" of caregiving "turned into seven years," Connors recalls. Drawn into a broader range of senior care issues, Connors returned to school and got a Master's in social work from Boston College. "I fell in love with elder issues."

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Aging in place "is still at the core of what we do," Connors says. "But we can do a lot more." The phrase she uses is "purposeful engagement." "We're there to help people maintain and expand," she explains. But if the idea in 2001 was to help people in their homes, today "we're about helping people get out of their homes," she says.

"We have a sense that our communities are changing," Taylor observes. "Think of it as engagement around purposeful, transitional experiences."

If communities are changing, so is the world of government and nonprofit services. The health reform act, to name one large example, is triggering significant shifts in the approaches and services of healthcare providers. This may create needs among seniors that help shape new roles for village programs.

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For example, Connors says, "some of our youngest members are screaming for us today to do more about end-of-life planning. They want us not to just focus on people at home but think we should be focusing on what's next in life."

"These are things that family members can't really help with," Taylor adds. "There aren't good support networks to help people who are going through these things."