Tue, Dec 02, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Retirees turning to virtual villages for support

With 90 percent of elderly saying they want to stay in their homes as they age, the concept affords those in question a chance to remain in familiar surroundings, at a lower cost than traditional retirement homes and without the need for supervision from family members

By Constance Gustke  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Yusha

Rick Cloud, 68, knew that he wanted to stay in his home in Austin, Texas, as he aged. However, Cloud, who is divorced, was not sure how he could do that without relying on his two daughters.

Then he ran across the idea of virtual retirement villages, whose members pay a yearly fee to gain access to resources and social connections that help them age in place. Sold on the concept, Cloud joined with some friends to start Capital City Village four years ago.

“Our virtual village can connect me with people my own age so I can do more things,” said Cloud, a retired technology consultant. “I worry about being single and getting older.”

Now, Cloud has all the support he needs. He can tap into Capital City Village’s network of more than 100 service companies referred by members. Dozens of volunteers are able to walk his dog or do yard work. When he wants to meet people, Cloud can attend house concerts in a member’s home, go to happy hour at the local Mexican restaurant or hear a champion storyteller give a talk. He has also made more than 40 village friends.

An offshoot of the sharing economy, virtual villages are popping up all over the US. Currently, there are 140 villages in 40 states, according to Village to Village Network, which helps establish and manage the villages. Another 120 virtual villages are on the drawing boards, as baby boomers like Cloud begin gravitating to them.

These villages are low-cost ways to age in place and delay going to costly assisted-living facilities, experts say. Yearly membership dues average about US$450, and most villages offer subsidies for people who cannot afford membership costs. Armies of volunteers, who help run many villages, also help lower member costs by doing yard work, picking up prescriptions or taking members shopping or to the airport.

At the core of these villages are concierge-like service referrals for members, Village to Village Network national director Judy Willett said. Members can find household repair services and sometimes even personal trainers, chefs, or practitioners of Reiki, the Japanese spiritual practice known for its healing technique. Most important, the villages foster social connections through activities like potlucks, happy hours and group trips.

This socializing gives people a greater sense of purpose and increases well-being, said Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist in Miami and author of How We Age.

“As people get older, they face the major dilemma of isolation,” Agronin said. “Having a local network of people to engage with opens up whole new worlds. It’s about discovering your strengths and the joy of living.”

Virtual village members stay in touch through village Web sites and e-mail, or by calling local village offices. Many villages also turn to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to stay in touch, Willett added.

A desire to age in place surrounded by friends was the impetus behind the nation’s first virtual village, Beacon Hill Village, started in Boston in 2002. It now has nearly 400 members and has served as a blueprint for other villages nationally, including Capital City Village.

For Susan McWhinney-Morse, who helped to found the village, staying on Beacon Hill was a no-brainer. She loved the community, her neighbors and her elegant row-house there.

“So we looked at community resources, such as transportation and healthcare, and asked ourselves: ‘How can we access them in an orderly way?’” she said.

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