hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2017


To age in place, it takes a village

Volunteer networks planned in Berkshire, Columbia counties


Shirley and Howard Shapiro are working to establish a volunteer network in central Berkshire County, affiliated with the national Village to Village nonprofit group, to help seniors live independently. John Townes photoShirley and Howard Shapiro are working to establish a volunteer network in central Berkshire County, affiliated with the national Village to Village nonprofit group, to help seniors live independently. John Townes photo


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

Two separate efforts are under way in Berkshire and northern Columbia counties to establish new volunteer networks to help elderly people continue to live independently in their homes.
The local projects are part of a national effort, known as the village movement, aimed at creating support networks that combine an old-fashioned spirit of neighborliness with contemporary organizational strategies.

This new generation of “villages” exists within larger geographic communities. The villages are local, grassroots nonprofit membership organizations based on volunteerism and mutual assistance, and they also help to connect members to professional resources and information.
“The goal of a village is to help people live at home independently, happily and securely, and continue to be involved in their community, as they age,” explained Shirley Shapiro of Lenox, who with her husband, Howard, is organizing a village group in the Berkshires.

The village movement started 15 years ago with Beacon Hill Village in Boston. The success of that effort led to the formation in 2010 of Village to Village, a nonprofit organization that provides support and resources to organizers of other to local villages around the nation. Today, about 200 organizations have been established using the village concept, and more than 150 are in development in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Each village is independent, and they vary widely in their size, structure, services and priorities. They adhere to a model based on shared principles, however.

The Web site of Village to Village (www.vtvnetwork.org) explains that villages are committed to “helping their members age in a place of their choosing, closely connected to their communities and with the supports and tools they need to create successful aging of their own design.”
Within each local village organization, fellow members or other volunteers provide personal services, such as transportation, errands or assistance with household repairs. They also provide information and references to professional services and other resources.

Another core principle is to create opportunities for socialization and community engagement, and to reduce the isolation that people may experience as they age, especially if they live alone. Villages help people connect to community activities and may also sponsor classes, field trips, athletic leagues and other events on their own.

“This is basically about neighbors helping neighbors,” said Carol Hegeman of Chatham, N.Y., who is working to start a village organization there. “In a way, it’s based on how things were when neighborhoods and families were more interconnected and people watched out for each other.”
Hegeman explained that the village movement applies this traditional concept within a formalized framework that addresses contemporary realities.

“Many villages have a professional staff person and a computer system to coordinate the activities,” she said. “They also provide insurance to cover liability if something happens, such as accidents when a volunteer is in someone’s home.”

Graying region
At a time when life expectancies are increasing, the village movement is part of a larger effort to support “aging in place,” or making it possible for people to continue to live in their own homes rather than moving into institutional settings.

This effort also reflects that the elderly represent a growing share of the overall population. Demographers estimate that 72 million people, or about 20 percent of the U.S. population, will be 65 or older by 2030. The trend is even more pronounced in the Berkshires, Vermont and upstate New York.

“The aging of the population is a reality that communities have to prepare for,” said Howard Shapiro, who is 78. “The first members of the baby boom began turning 65 in 2011. It’s been estimated that by 2030, a majority of the population of most Berkshire municipalities will be 50 or older.”

The familiar roles and patterns of aging are also changing, with many people postponing retirement, starting new careers and remaining active in other ways. Village organizations are designed to encourage this while also helping members handle the physical and practical challenges of aging.

“Our generation is living longer and is healthier,” said Karen McGraw, 63, a co-organizer of the village project based in Chatham. “The idea of enabling people to live independently in their homes is very positive from the standpoint of psychological, emotional and physical health.”
Villages also aim to strengthen connections among people in an era when many communities have become less close-knit and families are more apt to be geographically dispersed.
As self-directed membership organizations, villages are designed to accommodate people of varying ages and physical abilities. Members age in different ways, some become less able, and their roles are fluid. Members may volunteer to help others for specific tasks while also receiving assistance for their own needs.

“I heard a good analogy from someone who said ‘I’m independent, and I can drive and shop on my own, but I can’t lift a 20-pound bag of kitty litter out of the car anymore, so I need help with that,’” Hegeman said.

The types of assistance are also tailored to the skills of individuals.
“There’s a lot of give and take, and people can tap into their specific fortes,” McGraw said. “A member might not be able to clean gutters, but they can drive someone to an appointment or help them use their computer.”

Organizers emphasize that villages are intended to complement, rather than compete with or replace, other services for seniors provided by businesses, professional contractors, public agencies or other organizations.

Village organizations compile databases of resources for members, including vetted contractors and other professionals who are willing to do work at discounts. They also provide referrals and information to help members connect with elder resource agencies as well as professional medical services and caregivers when needed.

“Some of the groups we’ve contacted were initially concerned about that,” Howard Shapiro said. “But once we explained the concept, they became more positive, and many are enthusiastic about working with us and developing collaborative partnerships.”

Villages are designed to be broad-based, with participation available to all members of the larger community. Most have membership fees but also have systems to reduce or subsidize those for people of limited means.

“We want this to be broadly based and diverse in incomes, backgrounds and demographics,” Howard Shapiro said.


Getting started
The process of forming a village is complex. Village to Village outlines a suggested organizing strategy of gathering a group of people to start the process, conducting community assessments, establishing connections with other local organizations, and creating a formal organizational and legal structure.

Hegeman and McGraw said the Chatham initiative is still in its early stages.
For most of her career, Hegeman was director of the Foundation for Long Term Care, a nonprofit research and education organization based in the Albany suburb of Latham. Since retiring from that position, she has been a consultant on grant writing. She is also Chatham’s representative to the county Office for the Aging.

“I learned about these villages at a professional conference about nine years ago,” she said. “I liked the idea, and filed it away as something I wanted to pursue at some point. Now, I’m able to put the time into it.”

She recruited McGraw, a former New Lebanon schools superintendent, to help her. They held a preliminary public meeting in Chatham earlier this summer.

“Right now, we’re talking to people to determine if there are enough people who are interested in participating to move forward with it,” Hageman said. “The next step is to put together a group of five or six people to form a steering committee.”

They have scheduled a public informational meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, at the Chatham Free Library. (For information, e-mail Mcgrawkrn@yahoo.com.)


Rural challenges
Villages cover diverse geographic settings, including urban neighborhoods, suburbs and rural areas. These factors help to shape how individual organizations are structured and operate.
According to the Web site of Village to Village, the nearest operating village organizations now are in Albany and Dutchess counties of New York, with a new group being organized in Millerton. There are none yet in western Massachusetts, though two are under development in the Hampshire County area. Only one exists in Vermont, in the northern part of the state.

Hegeman and McGraw said that in a rural area such as northern Columbia County, one challenge is organizing to serve a relatively small population that’s spread out over a large area.
“It’s different than a concentrated urban neighborhood,” McGraw said. “A neighbor has to be defined more loosely than someone who lives within sugar-borrowing distance. We’ll also have to determine how to compensate for the fact that population centers are spread out and not as distinct.”

Hegeman likewise said there’s a difference between a volunteer traveling five minutes to someone’s home compared with having to drive for a half-hour.

Hegeman and McGraw said there are several options for organizing a village in their rural area. One is to focus on a few neighboring towns, including Chatham, Kinderhook and Ghent. Another is to develop a “hub and spoke” structure, with a central village organization and affiliated small groups in other parts of northern Columbia County that would share resources and insurance coverage.

The Berkshire County initiative is somewhat further along in the process. Organizers hope to establish a steering committee by the end of the year. They are preparing to seek grants, submit forms for state approval, apply for federal nonprofit status and lay the other groundwork in the coming months.

“We can’t predict an exact timetable, which will depend on several factors,” Howard Shapiro said. “But our goal is to be up and running by July of 2018.”

Shapiro added that they envision the village as a countywide organization ultimately, although they are initially focusing on the central Berkshires.

“Our plan is to start as a hub in the area that includes Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, and then encourage affiliated local villages in the northern and southern sections of the county,” he said.


Avoiding the institutional
The Shapiros, originally from Michigan, later lived in New Jersey and moved to Lenox 12 years ago. Howard was an administrator and consultant with United Way and other nonprofit organizations. Shirley has a background in education, mental health and other services in schools and hospitals.

The couple learned about the village movement through “Being Mortal,” a 2104 book by physician Atul Gawande that explores the aging process and the role of medicine in assisted-living and end-of-life choices.

“We are determined to live in our own home, rather than going into some senior complex or assisted-living facility,” Howard said. “The book mentioned the Beacon Hill Village, and the idea appealed to us. That led us to the Village to Village organization. Because of our experience in the non-profit sector, we decided to work on starting a village here.”

The Shapiros held a meeting of invited friends and acquaintances earlier this year that was attended by 16 people.

“They were very interested in the idea and wanted to learn more,” Shirley said.
The Shapiros contacted area organizations that serve the elderly, including the local Osher Lifetime Learning Institute, or OLLI. The national group, sponsored locally by Berkshire Community College, offers classes and other activities for people over 50.

The Shapiros also contacted the Berkshire County Regional Planning Commission, which is sponsoring an Age Friendly Community project on which Shirley serves as an adviser. This effort is affiliated with an international initiative of the World Health Organization aimed at developing strategies to make communities more supportive and accessible for their older populations.
“The planning commission has already done surveys of the demographics and needs of Berkshire County, which was very helpful,” Howard said.

They have been making other contacts with different programs and conducting outreach to the public, and additional organizational meetings are planned. (For more information, e-mail hishapiro@roadrunner.com.)