An icy wind sweeps across the grounds of the busiest mosque in the Baltimore area, swirling up little patches of snow, but the atmosphere inside a ranch house on the 8-acre campus is as warm and friendly as a neighbor’s kitchen.
The aroma of kofta, a curried meatball dish, fills a cozy front room. White-haired men surround a folding table to watch an impromptu game of chess, some standing, others sitting, speaking in an animated mix of Urdu, Punjabi and English.
As Shabbir Kapadia, 76, grabs a pawn and tries to slide it five squares as though it was a bishop, Jalal Akbar, 74, who is looking on, grabs his wrist and reminds him of the rules.
“You can’t do that, man,” he cries. “Put it back here!” And the group, including chess newbie Kapadia, falls into laughter and another hour’s worth of conversation.
To the more than 200 men and women who are members of Golden Age Village, a hub of activity for seniors operated by two dozen volunteers at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Windsor Mill, observing the rules of a game is good for the mind. But it’s the sense of involvement that really matters.
“If you’re retired, and your children are grown, you can end up just sitting at home all day doing nothing, maybe even getting depressed,” says Tariq Randhawa, 66, a retired corrections officer who lives in Catonsville and comes by almost daily. “It’s better to be active, get out of the house and meet friends. It’s about the company. This is really good for all of us.”
The village is one of 17 similar grassroots organizations in Maryland and 280 in the United States, and it’s a particularly diverse one.
Research shows that older adults in the United States are at significantly greater risk of experiencing chronic loneliness than their younger cohorts. About 56 million Americans are 65 years old or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and researchers at the National Institutes of Health found in 2020 that among seniors who live in their own homes, 25% suffer from persistent loneliness.
The effects are more than just emotional. Aging experts say social isolation puts sufferers at greater risk of developing a range of mental and physical disorders, from high blood pressure and heart problems to anxiety, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet nearly 80% of Americans in the age group say their preference is to stay in their homes or communities as long as they can.
A trend in the field of aging has taken root across the country to address this need, and the movement continues to grow and take differing forms.
It was about 20 years ago that a handful of Boston residents formed a network of volunteers. The group’s members were keenly aware that chronic illness, loss of family members and friends, a lack of transportation, and even hearing loss were compromising the well-being and independence of seniors in their community. The idea was to provide and share services to make “aging in place” a safer, healthier experience.
Beacon Hill Village Inc., as it’s now known, was the vanguard of what has become known as the village movement, a trend that has seen similar ventures crop up across the United States. Seventy or so groups are in development, says Barbara Sullivan, director of the Village to Village Network. The membership-based advocacy group promotes the concept and connects the current 280 villages.
Operating variously as volunteer enterprises or as nonprofits with a few paid employees, villages partner with local government aging agencies and affiliated groups to provide a range of services for older individuals. They include everything from supplying repair help around the house and volunteers who can pick up groceries to offering group games, lectures and outings.
The goal is to keep seniors engaged with others and feeling connected to a broader community as they continue to live more or less independently at home.
“The original concept of the village movement was to help middle Americans, folks who weren’t wealthy enough to get the support services that would allow them to age in place, yet not poor enough to qualify for county, state or local funding,” says Sullivan, who directs the network from her home in New Jersey. “It’s this idea of the volunteer first, of neighbor helping neighbor, of tapping into people’s sense of giving back.”
The concept of providing help for seniors is not new to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a community that serves about 3,000 people. Members began improvising senior services in the early 2000s when a group of younger adults, realizing that the mosque’s founders were reaching retirement age, began offering home visits, transportation and other resources.
Then one member decided to look into hyper-charging the services. As Eram Abbasi recalls it, her father, a Pakistani immigrant, had long ago settled in New York. But when it came time to retire, he decided to move to Baltimore to be near his grown children.
He tried attending events at a nearby senior center, says Abbasi, an aging specialist, but felt little in common with its members and never went back.
“With his cultural and religious background, he found it hard to connect, and he ended up staying home most of the time,” she says.
Having heard of the village movement through a colleague, Abbasi invited that colleague to host a series of informational meetings at ISB. Seniors flocked to the gatherings, bringing questions and ideas for the kind of village they might want. The services most mentioned were transportation, nutrition and opportunities to socialize.
“We saw that we needed to offer transportation, food if they needed it, socializing if they’re alone, visits if they become sick, or support if there’s a death in the family,” says Tufail Chaudhry, a longtime mosque member who helped run the sessions and is now village president.
More than a dozen volunteers signed up, organized a range of activities and established connections with the Baltimore County Department of Aging, which now supplies food. The mosque provided space on its campus (the mosque is otherwise not officially affiliated). Membership was offered free of charge, and Golden Age Village was born.
Regular services have expanded over the years to include breakfasts and brunches, lecture-and-dinner evenings, structured and casual conversations, a weekly knitting group and “chess and brain games” sessions every Thursday, not to mention hospital and hospice visits and prayers at home when needed.
Each of the villages in the U.S. tailors its functions to the needs of its community.
“We like to say if you’ve seen one village, you’ve only seen one, and it’s true,” Sullivan says.
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Golden Age Village offers a few unique twists. While most of the seniors who take part in village life across the country are white (96%, according to a survey conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016), the Windsor Mill village is one of a growing number with a predominantly nonwhite membership.
With users hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia and 24 other nations, the center probably serves a greater percentage of immigrants than any other, and it’s the only one in the U.S. with an overwhelmingly Muslim membership.
You don’t have to be an observer of the Islamic faith to belong, says Wajiha Farooqi of Catonsville, a volunteer who works at the center several days per week, although she believes one reason the village model works at ISB is that its mission tracks with Muslim reverence for the elderly and the community.
“Believers are just like one body,” she says, citing a passage from the Hadith, a collection of narratives about the Prophet Muhammad. “When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body suffers. So we all take care of each other.”
Kapadia, Akbar and friends are doing just that at the Thursday afternoon chess gathering, though the board on the table is more a point of connection than a game. The conversation all but rattles the windows as they swap ideas on everything from Pakistani politics to regional foods to home repairs.
Chaudhry, 75, says a house he owns needed work on its attic. After a contractor wanted to install $3,000 worth of insulation, Chaudhry talked to a villager who recommended another contractor. That man stopped by, told Chaudhry the house needed no such work, charged a small fee for the visit and left, leaving Chaudry appreciating the value of the village.
“We love to get together and talk,” he said with a laugh. “You never know what you’re going to learn.”