Northampton group seeks to form virtual retirement village (w/video)

  • Katherine Baker, the VP of Northampton Neighbors and Celia Jeffries, talk about the project.

  • “This is a way not to pull people away from society and house them somewhere, but to keep them engaged with society.”

  • "Its goal is to empower seniors to live independent, engaged lives in their homes," Leigh Bailey, 77, president of Northampton Neighbors.

  • “Our population is getting old and we are trying to think of interesting and different ways that people can be comfortable and healthy and socially connected.” Katharine Baker, vice president, Northampton Neighbors  

  • Celia Jeffries and Leigh Bailey are among those holding forums on the virtual village plan. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Our population is getting old and we are trying to think of interesting and different ways that people can be comfortable and healthy and socially connected.” Katharine Baker, vice president, Northampton Neighbors  

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2017 3:51:27 PM

An 80-year-old woman who is fiercely independent, but can’t drive; a man in his 60s who needs help programming the remote for his new television; a single retiree who might not have the strength to put up her storm windows — older adults like these are living well in their own homes, but need occasional help.

To provide it, reliably, virtual retirement villages are sprouting up all over the country. Members pay a yearly fee to gain access to a sort of concierge service that helps them age in place. They can make a call or log on to a website to request services like rides to the grocery store or help around the house, generally provided by volunteers.

A group of eight people have been working to get one going in Northampton. Called Northampton Neighbors, the organizers hope their “village” will launch this fall offering rides, social outings and vetted medical referrals.

“Its goal is to empower seniors to live independent, engaged lives in their homes,” said Leigh Bailey, 77, president of the fledgling organization.

At first, the service will be only for residents of Northampton with expansion into neighboring towns a future goal, the organizers say. The group, which has been holding public forums at the Hampshire Regional YMCA in Northampton, anticipates that there will be no shortage of people interested in signing on.

About 15 percent of Hampshire County residents are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) expects this age group to double nationally by 2030.

The Northampton Neighbors’ organizers have been gathering information about what older people in this area want and need, gauging interest in everything from lawn care to book clubs.

“This is a way not to pull people away from society and house them somewhere, but to keep them engaged with society,” said Celia Jeffries, 67, communications director for the group.

Each group unique

Each virtual retirement community is tailored to the population that it serves, often working under the umbrella nonprofit organization Village to Village Network, a membership group based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Some communities function purely on the dedication of volunteers, while others acquire the money to hire staff through private donations, fundraising and grants, said Natalie Galucia, executive director of Village to Village Network.

“They all work differently,” agreed Laura Connors, the executive director of the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, a virtual community that has been operating for 15 years.

“If you have seen one village, you have seen one village. For the most part these are grassroots organizations created by older adults for older adults. They are going to reflect the people that have created them.”

Beacon Hill Village was the first virtual village in the country, sparking a sort of village retirement movement that led to the creation of the Village to Village Network to provide information and support. Now there are at least 217 villages operating throughout the United States and more in the works, Connors said.

The founders of Beacon Hill sought to form a group because they all wanted to stay in their homes as they grew older, she said, a common goal among older people. At least 87 percent of adults age 65 and older want to stay in their homes and communities as they age, according to the AARP.

The Beacon Hill Village “wanted to connect members to everything they might need, with a robust calendar with exercise classes, day trips and opportunities to socialize,” Connors said.

“We know that social isolation is one of the major factors in declining health as people grow old, so creating opportunities for people to be engaged was a focus.”

Today Beacon Hill is thriving, run by a small staff of two full-time and five part-time employees who serve 400 members around the Boston area. The annual yearly fee for members is $675.

The staff help organize movie nights and coffee dates. If needed, they also provide rides and household help.

Most requests for services come by telephone, but members also stay connected with each other through online forums.

At Carleton-Willard at Home village in Bedford, the emphasis is on transportation, said executive director Paula Von Kleydorff, which is why its other paid staffer is a driver.

“We made the decision early on that the bulk of our money goes to driving,” Von Kleydorff said. “Each program is a little bit different.”

Online at first

The idea for Northampton Neighbors grew out of Bailey’s book club. The members read “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande, which includes a section mentioning the village movement.

“It sparked our interest,” Bailey said.

Since then, over the past nine months, she and the core group have formed a board, registered as a nonprofit with the federal government and incorporated with the state.

The plan is to set up an online operation run on donated time and money until organizers can pull together the resources to hire a part-time administrator and rent a space, she says. Members will be encouraged to take part in the volunteering.

Though the group won’t shape its plans until it has finished its research, ideas include supporting social clubs like singing groups, hosting day trips and holding community potlucks, the organizers say. Transportation to medical appointments or to the grocery store also could be offered. Other services that are under consideration include tech help with computers, pet care for when members are out of town, and light maintenance like trash removal.

Groton Neighbors, which began recently in Groton has found that running an online operation works well and eliminates the expense of paying for an office, said Bill Knuff, head of operations, who volunteers his time.

The group is run solely by volunteers, which include the members themselves. All are screened by interviews before being accepted to the program.

For the yearly fee of $120 per person, Groton Neighbors offers transportation, help with household chores like changing a light bulb and technical support for cellphones and computers, Knuff said. So far, 46 people have signed on.

“We are not a healthcare provider and we do not want to represent ourselves as that,” Knuff said. “People must be ambulatory. If they request a ride, they must be able to get into the car without help.”

Volunteers work shifts to run the website. All requests are responded to within three business days, according to Knuff.

“I think it has been fantastic and it will continue to be so,” he said. “We have put in a lot of hard work because we believe in this. By any metric people who stay in their homes are healthier and happier so there is a tremendous benefit to this.”

Work ahead

Northampton Neighbors still has a lot of work ahead, but those attending the forums held so far have been enthusiastic, the organizers say.

“Our population is getting old and we are trying to think of interesting and different ways that people can be comfortable and healthy and socially connected,” said Katharine Baker, 78, vice president of the group.

The fee for Northampton Neighbors has not yet been determined, but it will be kept affordable through scholarships and a sliding scale says Jeffries.

Volunteers worked for two years to launch Groton Neighbors. Another group, in Shutesbury, called Village Neighbors has been working to put one together for a year. They anticipate it will take another two years before it is ready to go. Some groups get started and never finish, says Galucia of the national network.

“There are definitely some that start exploring and developing and don’t end up becoming operational. Usually because they can’t get the buy-in they need from potential members and others in the community or cannot secure enough funding,” she said.

Northampton Neighbors organizers are optimistic that that won’t happen to them based on the support they have sensed in the six forums they have held so far.

In the coming months, they will begin accepting donations and seeking more volunteers, says Jeffries.

“We’ve had such a strong, positive response from the public and so much has been accomplished in less than a year, that we’re confident Northampton Neighbors will become a vital part of this community,” she said.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

Those interested in learning more about Northampton Neighbors can call 341-0160 or visit www.northamptonneighbors.org. The group is holding forums on the fourth Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the Hampshire Regional YMCA, 286 Prospect St., Northampton to gauge public interest.

Also, the author of “Being Mortal, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” Atul Gawande, will speak via video at Northampton Senior Services and Senior Center, 67 Conz St., Monday, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.

 




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