Behind Columbia's McGraw, national movement could be coming to Howard County

Mary McGraw, of Columbia, is spearheading the idea for a senior 'village' in Howard County.
Mary McGraw, of Columbia, is spearheading the idea for a senior 'village' in Howard County. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

Howard County might soon be getting a new village — and no, Columbia is not expanding.

A group of senior citizens and their advocates are exploring the possibility of setting up a senior "village," an organization that coordinates services — everything from yard work and home-delivered meals to legal assistance and exercise groups  — for seniors who want to continue living in their community but need help to do so.


While still in its nascent stage, the group has already held two general meetings in Columbia, and formed a steering committee.

A third general meeting of the group will be held Saturday, April 6, at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City.


"We're still in the planning stages — there's a lot of questions to be answered," said Mary McGraw, 68, of Columbia, the moving force behind the Howard County village. "But we've had a lot of interest so far."

The village would be modeled after similar organizations that have sprung up across the country over the past decade in response to the growing number of seniors who, for whatever reason, want to stay in their homes rather than move to a retirement community.

The village movement began in Boston in 2001, where a group of seniors set up the Beacon Hill Village. A December 2012 study by the Rutgers School of Social Work, among others, found that some 85 villages have opened in the United States and at least 120 more are being planned.

Although the structures vary, villages typically have one or two paid employees and are funded mostly by dues from members, although they often get help from public and private sources. The village coordinates a range of senior-friendly services, which are provided by a combination of volunteers (both members and non-members, such as young people doing community service) and professionals, whose services are screened by the village and often offered at a discount.

Supporters say Howard County would be fertile ground for such a village.

"It just makes sense to do it in Howard County, Columbia in particular," said Dayna Brown, administrator of the county Office on Aging and a member of the infant group's steering committee. "The whole sense of community and staying in a community — those are very much Columbia ideals. … A lot of what makes up Columbia lends itself to a village."

Brown said her office, which coordinates and provides services for seniors, has no plans to manage the village, but will act more as a partner.

An eye-opening experience

McGraw has been intrigued by the notion of starting a senior village here for years.

In the late 1990s, her aging mother moved in to McGraw's Dorsey Hall home. It was an eye-opening experience that prompted McGraw, after her mother died in 2001, to launch a monthly newspaper for seniors in Howard County. She heard about the village movement while running the newspaper.

"I was very interested in the idea from the start," she said, "but I had no time to do anything about it." When she closed her newspaper in 2011, she decided she had that time.

Last summer, she and Brown visited the Capitol Hill Village in Washington, one of the most active in the country. In November, McGraw organized a meeting at Columbia's Linden Hall to introduce her idea, inviting two people from the Capitol Hill Village to speak.


"I had no idea how many people would come," she recalled in a recent interview. "But they filled the room. I think we had 50 or 60 people there. I was floored — I was hoping for 10."

To McGraw, who now lives alone and whose children live out of the area, the village concept just makes sense for seniors.

"Say, for instance, I went into the hospital and had my hip replaced," she said. "I come home and my children are scattered around the country. I need someone to come in and help me get a meal, water my plants. Someone to walk the dog, get the mail."

One of the early converts was Phil Dopkowski, 77, a member of the local village movement steering committee.

Dopkowski, a retired federal employee, and his wife Judy have lived in the same Thunder Hill neighborhood of Columbia since 1970. They feel part of the community and have no desire to move.

"The one key word is proximity," he said, explaining that their home offers proximity to people of all ages and types, as well as to green space, cultural events, medical facilities, shopping and restaurants.

"I don't think I'd like the isolation of a 50-plus community," Dopkowski said. "I'd like to stay here, in Columbia."

A senior village, he said, would make staying there more feasible. "It's the wave of the future for seniors," Dopkowski said.

McGraw said 100 members would be "critical mass" for a Howard County village, though 50 might be enough to get started. "I'd prefer to start small, then we can grow," she said.

With all the details to be worked out, she estimated it would be another one or two years at least before the village is off the ground and running. Details or not, she is convinced the concept would work in Howard County.

"This is needed in Howard County for the same reason it's needed everywhere," McGraw said. "We have a mass of baby boomers moving through … and I think they'd rather stay in their homes, age in place, and help each other doing that."

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