Tuesday, October 6, 2015
When Penelope Roberts, 73, of Alexandria, Virginia, had knee replacement surgery last month, she knew she would be out of commission for several weeks. Although Roberts is divorced and doesn’t have any children, she had a network of support in place to drive her to medical and physical therapy appointments, pick up prescriptions and even return a library book.
Several years ago Roberts joined At Home In Alexandria (AHA), a local not-for-profit group, built on the “village” model of community-based aging. Villages are membership-based, nonprofit organizations, run by both volunteers and paid staff, that offer access to services from a network of volunteers like technical support, household maintenance and repairs, social activities and educational opportunities.
Need a new light bulb in your dining room chandelier? Want to see a play or discuss Jane Austen? A village volunteer can help.
“I bought patio furniture and after I struggled for an hour-and-a-half putting together one chair, a volunteer came out and put together all of my patio furniture in almost no time,” said Roberts. “These are small things, but if you can’t do them for yourself, you want to feel that you can call upon somebody and not feel embarrassed about it.”
AHA is one of more than 48 villages around the Washington, D.C., area, according to the Washington Area Villages Exchange (WAVE). The movement, which began in Boston in 2002 with Beacon Hill Village, is on the rise as more seniors express desires to remain in their homes and communities as long as possible.
Volunteers offer services like home repairs and maintenance, transportation, social health and wellness programs, social and educational activities, and fulfill other day-to-day needs, enabling individuals to remain connected to their communities throughout the aging process.
“We can work on a leaky faucet or short-term pet care, we can take care of short-term plant watering needs.”
— Cele Garrett, executive director of AHA
“We can work on a leaky faucet or short-term pet care, we can take care of short-term plant watering needs,” said Cele Garrett, executive director of AHA. “If they need IT support or if they’re trying to get their DVR set up … we can help with that.” Garrett says the Washington-area has the highest concentration of villages in the country.
SOCIAL CONNECTIONS are one of the most vital aspects of village communities. “It’s really important for people not become isolated if you want to maintain a healthy outlook on life,” said Sheila Moldover, communications chair, Potomac Community Village in Potomac, Maryland. “Social connections add flavor to your life.”
In fact, village officials name the social component as one of the most important aspects of their programs. “Our members want to get out and meet people and enjoy themselves,” said Roberts. “That is a critically important role that we play.”
Activities include trips to local museums, performances, concerts, and lunch and dinner engagements. For example, the Lake Barcroft Village in Fairfax County, Virginia, hosted an author talk with Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Pat Sloyan, who discussed his book, “The Politics of Deception: JFK’s Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cuba.”
Later this month, the Arlington (Virginia) Neighborhood Villages Opera Buffs group is hosting a happy hour and discussion of Verdi’s “Othello.” The Potomac Community Village is hosting a theater party at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Our social events are a great way to stay engaged and active because it’s easy to get out if we’ve already made arrangements for you,” said Garrett. “All you have to do is sign on. You don’t have to find an activity or someone to go with.”
THE SERVICES OFFERED vary from village to village and are tailored to meet the specific needs of the local community. For example, in Mount Vernon, Virginia, transportation is a concern. Barbara Sullivan, executive director of Mount Vernon at Home says that her volunteer drivers provide an average of 100 rides to seniors each month.
“There are virtually no sidewalks and there are hills,” said Sullivan. “Transportation is a huge issue for seniors who want to stay in their homes and remain active.”
Roberts is in charge of the volunteer committee for AHA. As both a volunteer and a recipient of village services, she recognizes what a difference those who receive training and offer their services free of charge can make. For example, she assisted a fellow member with small tasks that were a big help. “I was able to put clothes in the washing machine for her, take a book to the library and change bedding that she couldn’t change,” said Roberts.
“One day soon we’ll be making requests for the same help that we provide,” said Steve Nelson of Del Ray, Alexandria, an AHA volunteer. “We’ve met such incredibly terrific and fascinating people that we never would have met otherwise. That’s a great motivator.”
“We have volunteers who can help with organizing, decluttering or cleaning out a closet,” said Garrett. “What would a neighbor or good friend help with? They’d help you with these things, but you wouldn’t ask a neighbor to help you to the bathroom.”
Patricia Sullivan, interim operations manager, Arlington Neighborhood Villages, reports that the organization is growing and adding services at a slow, but steady and deliberate pace. In fact, two new services were added in August: "Walking Buddies" and "Friendly Visitors."
"With the walking buddy service, members can request a volunteer who can take a walk with them around their neighborhood. We had one member who is blind requested someone to walk with her and her service dog," said Sullivan. "With the friendly visitors service, a volunteer goes over to someone's house to spend time with them. There was one instance where a volunteer went over to a member's house to watch a football game with him."
The Fairfax County Long Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC) provides guidance to those in the county who are interested in setting up villages. Interest in the village concept is on the rise in the county.
"We're definitely seeing growth,"said Patricia Rohrer, Village Liaison, Fairfax County Health Department. "I'm seeing a kind of shift where at one time people came together on their own to form a village, now community associations and other similar groups are becoming interested in the village concept and adding it on as a component of their existing organization.