We’ve all read the statistics that the vast majority of Baby Boomers would like to age in place. But a lack of services for both small and large issues — snow shoveling, transportation and home health care — often make it impossible for seniors to remain at home safely. That’s one reason intentional communities have popped up across the country.
The concept is a departure from the tradition of bringing seniors to the services. The intentional community model brings necessary services to seniors’ doorsteps. “These communities are really the wave of the future for aging,” said Dianne Campbell, executive director of The Village Chicago.
People in a neighborhood or city come together to organize, fund and manage not-for-profits that serve as connectors between seniors and the services they require to age in place. The organizations often are buttressed by an army of volunteers, and the side benefits include social and emotional connections for both the seniors and volunteers.
Though there were more than 100 such communities either operating or starting up around the country as of 2009, no community is exactly the same. That’s the beauty of them, say supporters. Each has its own culture and services, depending on residents’ needs, interests, and desires. If there’s not one in your area, you could be the catalyst and create your own group. Here are some starting points:
- Research other similar communities that have been established and learn from their successes and mistakes. Boston’s Beacon Hill Village was the earliest intentional community, and they created a workbook that guides newbies through the process.
- Develop a founding group. Ideally, you want those committed to donating skills, time, knowledge and funds. Staying Put In New Canaan, a New Canaan, Connecticut community, for instance, tapped local marketing, finance, accounting, legal and administrative talent who offered services pro bono. Many continue to do so. And The Village Chicago started with just three couples chatting and seeking alternatives to existing senior care options.
- Assess interest and recruit prospective members. You’ll likely find an interest because so many have the desire to stay put. That, in fact, was the starting point for New Canaan’s Staying Put. “People came together who didn’t want to leave town as they aged,” comments the group’s executive director.
- Fund the plan. Locating funding sources could be a challenge. Seed money can come from local businesses and corporations and board members.
- Create a business plan, including staffing needs, operating cost estimates and funding resources.
- Develop relationships with neighborhood groups. Include health care ventures, businesses and government groups geared to seniors, along with art and education programs to figure out what’s already available and where holes exist. Not duplicating what already exists is important. And networking with local groups has offered expertise, advice, insight, and access to data and studies that could be invaluable.
- Determine membership costs.
- Estimate costs of services. Some services are included in the membership fee and some are provided free by volunteers. Others are offered on a fee-for-service approach, and groups typically negotiate for discounted rates with providers. Having a volunteer framework in place is key. Not only does it keep costs down for members, it also leads to new friendships among neighbors and strengthens community bonds.
- Promote the idea. You can hold town meetings to introduce the concept, get people interested and recruit volunteers and members. Having a passionate, respected spokesperson can be advantageous.
- Locate service providers, ranging from home health care providers and computer technicians to handymen, landscapers, and plumbers. What services you offer depend on members’ needs. Recognize that the needs in urban areas may differ from those in rural and suburban communities. Transportation may be one of your greatest challenges. You can enlist volunteers who provide personalized transportation, helping members run errands, taking them to doctors’ appointments and car pooling for special events.
- Develop enrichment programs. Though one aim of intentional communities is to allow people to age in place, the other goal reaches beyond just servicing the members’ physical needs. A critical component is a social aspect. That includes providing a broad array of outings and events, including museums and concerts, dinners, classes, lectures, exercise groups, and so forth. Community-building is important. Try to weave a network of community support and give multiple generations an opportunity to interact, make new friends and build programs.
Such groups can also help members fend off loneliness. As we age, we tend to get more isolated. So, try to do very personal things—home visits and calls—to minimize that isolation and keep up with what’s happening. It’s all about respecting and caring for seniors and neighbors caring for one another.