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Published: Thursday, 11/15/2007

When Neighborhoods Get "Old" and Get Highly Organized

FRIDAY

6 AM

If we re lucky, the saying goes, we ll get old. And if we re even luckier, we ll decide our own fates. The thing about getting old is, it sure has a way of creeping up on you. One day, to use a seasonal example, you re outside raking leaves. The next day, you bend over to pick up a pencil and somehow crack a rib.

Sure, maybe you re the only one all this has crept up on. Maybe everyone else meaning, usually, your adult children saw it coming. But still. There comes a day in the life of many an old person when they (and those who love them) realize that continued independence is more of a fervent desire than a reality.

The worst part might just be that limbo stage, when you re generally too capable to have to give up on living in your own home, but not quite able any more to do everything that needs to be done. Moving at that point seems premature, but then again, the fact is you can no longer haul the garbage can to the curb. Or safely climb the ladder to clean out the gutters. Or drive to the grocery.

But what if it takes a village to both raise a child and grow old, too?

The so-called village movement is spreading quickly around the United States, and I can t help but think that Toledo, with its older-than-average population, is one place that could benefit.

It started in Boston less than a decade ago, with a program called Beacon Hill Village. From the group s Web site:

Faced with the prospect of leaving the neighborhood they love in order to obtain the services of a retirement community, a group of long-time Beacon Hill residents decided to create a better alternative Beacon Hill Village is designed to make remaining at home a safe, comfortable and cost-effective solution.

By partnering with proven providers of services, Beacon Hill Village is able to offer its members preferred access to social and cultural activities, exercise opportunities and household and home maintenance services, as well as medical care and assisted living at home. As a nonprofit, membership organization, it can provide these programs and services more cost-effectively than most conventional retirement communities.

First, of course, is the fact that Beacon Hill is a high-income neighborhood. For all the noise about providing services more cost-effectively than your average retirement community, the fact remains that we re talking here about people of means.

Still, this is an idea whose time has come or might even be overdue. As a New York Times article this summer explained:

So far, most of the villages are in places where residents are well connected and skilled in finance, law, medicine and philanthropy as a result of their own careers. That raises the question of whether the model is viable only in neighborhoods of privilege. But experts point out that most care for the elderly is already out of reach for all but the wealthy.

Peter Harkness is editor/publisher of Governing magazine and a columnist for Congressional Quarterly (which publishes Governing). In an article last month, he pointed out that

state and local government will have plenty to think about. As suburban sprawl worsens, more elderly people who have lost their driver's licenses could be stranded in their homes if public transit isn't improved significantly. There will be pressure to smooth, widen or construct more sidewalks or pathways to handle a growing number of wheelchairs and electric carts. Social services will have to be better integrated with nonprofit and volunteer programs in lower-income elderly villages and across regional lines rather than fragmented among smaller jurisdictions, as they are today. Affordable housing, particularly in cities, will have to be built. Access to health care will have to be provided.

No one seems to know exactly what effect the silver tsunami will have on metropolitan areas. It appears that the boomers, who built the nation's suburbs in the first place, will largely stick with them, so the suburbs will age faster than their cities. Yet there are some indications that higher-income, better-educated seniors will want to live where there is more age diversity, easy access to public transit and plenty of cultural amenities, and so will migrate to cities in sufficient numbers to improve their tax bases.

Harkness lives in Washington, where the village movement is fast taking hold. In fact, he writes, older neighbors of his were spotlighted in the New York Times article.

As you might guess, the nation s biggest elder advocacy group is already on top of this. Click here for AARP s run-down on the way aging in place is taking off in and around Washington neighborhoods.

What I think is especially powerful about the village movement is that it s a grass roots, neighborhood response. Not that I m in any way anti-government-with-a-Big-G, but I m quite drawn to the idea of neighbors marshaling their own resources for the common good. At the moment, the model for all this is usually costly but not always. As the Times noted:

A few villages are cropping up where low-income families live, such as in the Richmond District of San Francisco, with its recent wave of Russian immigrants; Falmouth, Mass., where year-round residents struggle when the summer crowd is gone; and in pockets in Westchester County, like Yonkers, with diverse populations.

In such locations, social service organizations are likely to organize the project, instead of the older residents, and they rely on volunteers or bartered services to keep fees down. One member fixes another s faucet, banks the time and in exchange gets a ride to a medical appointment.

New York, according to the Times, is leading the way at the state level. For 20 years, that state has recognized what it calls NORCs, or, naturally occurring retirement communities. So it is that the Empire State goes into apartment buildings with high percentages of older residents to offer such services as nursing care and case management.

Alas, the Times notes: On the federal level, Congress authorized experiments in aging in place in the 2006 Older American Act but did not finance them.

Sigh. What, no one in Congress is (or plans to get) old ..?



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