Roland Park resident Susan Newhouse remembers the day in 2006 that she opened the New York Times and read an article about the Beacon Hill Village in Boston. "I thought, aha, this is the way to age," says Newhouse. "I'm going to open a village."
The village Newhouse had in mind is part of an innovative network of virtual villages, where people from all over the world join together (via computer or phone) to "age in place" and to stay connected with their neighbors who volunteer to help them with a variety of tasks and services.
"Aging people are invisible," says Newhouse, a licensed clinical social worker who runs a private geriatric care management company and who has taught in the gerontology program at Towson University. "Our needs increase as we age."
In 2008, Newhouse launched Village At Home, a community-based network of volunteers who provide services and activities to older adults and people with disabilities so they can live full lives in their homes and neighborhoods.
Virtual villages like Village At Home are part of a larger movement seeking alternatives for America's aging population. There are close to 200 villages in the U.S., Australia and the Netherlands that provide peer-to-peer services, according to the Village to Village Network.
Based on the most recent U.S. Census figures, people older than 65 now represent about 14 percent of the population and will make up 25 percent by 2060. Gerontologists who study aging say most seniors want to stay in their homes as long as possible.
"Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods," says Newhouse. "So it makes sense to people to have a village. Village At Home adds a specialized network that caters to older adults. Existing networks of friends and family aren't often enough."
Membership in the nonprofit Village At Home is open to individuals and families. Member ages range the 40s to the 90s. Yearly dues are $800 for individuals and $1,200 per household ("How much would you pay for a gym membership?" says Newhouse). The fee includes the services of volunteers and vetted vendors who fulfill requests from members for everything from bringing dogs to the vet, to helping set up email accounts and opening stuck windows. Currently, Village serves 21 neighborhoods — from Tuscany-Canterbury to Lake-Evesham.
Village members also participate in social activities such as book clubs and dinner-and-a-movie night outs at The Charles Theatre. "Social events help with isolation," says Leigh Hubbard, Village At Home's member services coordinator and a physical therapist. "Our members will sit next to someone at a brunch and realize they have someone in common."
Having Village is a great relief for out-of-town offspring, says Newhouse. "We give them some sense that their parents are not alone. Families are worried about their parents, even if they only live an hour away."
Paying it Forward
At age 50, Steve Franz has two young children and a busy schedule. A former IT professional, Franz is both a member of Village At Home and an active volunteer.
"The biggest enjoyment I get out of volunteering is donating my experience," says Franz, who lives in Mt. Washington.
One of six children, he and his siblings all pitched in to help care for their aging mother. During the course of caregiving, Franz "came across other people who didn't have that kind of support." Seeing that not every family had the kind of support system that his family did inspired him to volunteer with the Village.
"When my mom passed away I wanted to continue helping people," says Franz, who puts his IT skills to work as a volunteer. "It's good to be able to give people assistance. And a lot them just need simple things. Helping older adults with technology helps them stay connected."
Indeed, technology can be one of the biggest challenges for older adults. "Our members still use flip-top phones," says Susan. "We have a number of tech volunteers who help members who get phished or scammed on the Internet."
Franz says that through his work with Village At Home he has developed friendships with people he's helped. "They send pictures to my kids." He also says that being a volunteer sets a positive example for his children.
Because both of his parents are deceased, "my kids don't get to see older folks as much as other kids do," says Franz. "It's important for them to see the value of helping other people." He occasionally brings his older child when he volunteers. "I hope it rubs off."
For Caroline Wayner, 49, of Roland Park, volunteering to help take Ann Martin's two "rambunctious" dogs, Pippa and MiniMi, to the vet was an easy choice.
"I don't have a dog but I love dogs," says Wayner, who was already bullish on the concept of aging in place before becoming a volunteer. "My dogs are comfortable with Caroline," say Martin, 75, of Mt. Washington. She joined Village last year after undergoing surgery. "I saw a flier and I joined," says Martin.
"I think this [The Village] is a great model," says Wayner. "I'm thrilled to be a part of a revolution in aging."
Volunteers, some of whom come from as far away as Columbia, undergo training in everything from how to deal with emergencies to how to politely say no to requests.
"We screen out volunteers very carefully," says Newhouse. "We collect references and they undergo two hours of training."
To ensure safety, volunteer drivers undergo an MVA check, a criminal background check, and an insurance and driver's license check. "Transportation is our number one request," says Newhouse. "Our members don't use Uber. They want to trust the people who are driving them."
Training also includes information on how to establish and maintain a "healthy volunteer-member relationship."
"We try to help members understand volunteers," says Hubbard. "We don't want volunteers to feel overwhelmed. Volunteers have the option to say no."
Above all, Newhouse says she wants volunteers and members to enjoy each other. "We want our volunteers to have a good time. To that end, they need to understand boundaries."
Though Village At Home has 25 members and 27 volunteers, Newhouse is hopeful people will continue to both join and serve as volunteers, especially as Baby Boomers move into their 70s and 80s.
"People really want to give back to the community they live in," says Hubbard. "They love giving back. They know one day they'll get to that stage in life."
To learn more about Village At Home, go to www.villageathome.com.