Residents find value in a village

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Robert Friedman

Pat Dunford, a volunteer with the Village in Howard, helps Village member Charlie Catania by replacing ceiling light bulbs in his home. The recently created Village in Howard enables older adults in the county to remain in their homes as they age by providing the assistance of neighborhood volunteers, community social and educational events, access to a list of vetted service providers, and more. There is a modest annual fee for membership.
Photo by Joy Cheung

A group of Howard County older adults have joined together in the belief that it takes a village to provide aging residents with a continuing good quality of life and more security in their own homes.

The organization, for county residents 55 and over, is called the Village in Howard, (TVIH), and it coordinates home services as well as social and educational events for its members.

“A lot of aging people in the area don’t have family members close by. As you get older, it’s good to have people you can call on for help around the home,” said Columbia resident Duane St. Clair, 64, a village member who helped plan the local organization.

“Like my wife and me, many people moved into the county when they were young, and we’re all now reaching that age where we could need help to stay in our home, which we all want to do. Howard County is not as young as it used to be. The Howard Village is an idea whose time has definitely come.”

TVIH is part of a movement that began in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston 12 years ago and is now spreading around the country.

In most cases, villages consist of older homeowners living in an established neighborhood. Residents generally pool their annual fees to hire a concierge who negotiates group rates with home service providers of many types, arranges social activities for members, and solicits neighborhood volunteers to help older members in whatever way they can.

At last count by the Village to Village Network, a national umbrella group, there were more than 160 such neighborhood villages coast-to-coast, with another 147 getting ready to go, as well as villages in Europe, South Africa and Australia. In the Washington, D.C. area, there are 50 villages up and running or under development.

The founders of TVIH decided against separating Howard County into multiple neighborhood villages, and instead considers the entire county to be one such village.

Getting started

It took the coming of age of the baby boomers to kick off the idea, said TVIH Board President Mary McGraw, of Ellicott City, who has been working since 2012 to create a local village. TVIH opened its doors in January.

“The baby boomers have always been changing the culture,” said McGraw, 70. “Remember the ‘60s?”

McGraw noted that TVIH is not in competition with such government services as offered by the county’s Office of Aging. “We are one more resource for seniors, and are not in competition” with such agencies, she said.

Still active part-time at a nursing-care agency, McGraw said she became aware of the virtual village movement when she was publisher of a monthly newspaper for the county’s seniors, which she began in 2001 and closed in 2011.

“I was very interested in the village idea from the start, but then I had no time to do anything about it. Now, I have the time,” said McGraw, who lives alone and whose children live in other states. 

Continuing care and assisted living facilities have never appealed to the vast majority of older adults. Repeated AARP studies over the last 20 years have found that more than 85 percent of those 65 and older would prefer to keep living in their residences for as long as possible. And that is what TVIH, like other senior villages, is aiming to help the county’s senior do, McGraw noted.

Each grassroots village, she said, goes about meeting that goal in its own way. “There’s a saying,” McGraw noted, “that if you’ve seen one village, you’ve seen one village.”

Joining in

So far, the nascent TVIH counts 73 members, and hopes to double that number by the end of the year. (The county now has between 30,000 and 40,000 seniors — about 14 percent of the population and expected to keep growing.)

The non-profit group has no paid staff. It now is run by volunteers. There is a $350 fee for full individual membership; $450 for a two-person household. Associate member fees are $150 for one; $250 for two people in the same home.

While associates can take part in all the social and educational activities, full members also get the personalized services offered by volunteers. There is also a vetted list of home contractors.

“You will probably have to call your own plumber,” said McGraw. “But if you have a leaky toilet that’s running up the water bill, we have people who can fix that,” she said.

So far, most of the Howard villagers are couples and singles (the majority women) in their 60s and 70s who tap into the social activities. These range from picnics to Saturday morning walks, to lectures on how to avoid being scammed, to museum visits, to a special showing of the movie, Selma. Then there’s the drum circle, where members learn from musicians how to beat out the rhythm of their years.

Many see the membership as a form of insurance for later years when they will need rides to and from the doctor’s office, or help with fairly simple electrical, plumbing, gardening or moving problems, as well as being able to connect with reputable providers of paid services.

While TVIH is just getting started, other villages have added more complex services, such as social work and discounts at local stores. In one District of Columbia village, volunteers accompany members to medical appointments to take notes.

An eye toward the future

“This is a wonderful concept,” said Jane Sherman of Columbia, a founding TVIH member. She noted that though she and her husband Jim, ages 73 and 74, don’t need the home services now, “We might need that help in the future.”

Nancy Maestri, 68, and husband George, 70, joined up with TVIH as associate members to take advantage of the activities, and with an eye on the possibility of future help in the home from the organization.

“The idea appealed to us,” she said. “”While we don’t need the full price services yet, we know that if we ever need these services, they would be available to us.”

The village model has very successful in prosperous areas, according to the Washington Post, which noted that many villages offer reduced or sliding-scale rates for low-income residents. The D.C. Office on Aging has awarded two $15,000 grants to groups hoping to start villages in the city’s lower-income wards.

TVIH Board President McGrath said the Howard group was “looking at a program for scholarships” that would help low-income seniors in the county become village members.

For more information about Howard County’s new virtual village, including a calendar of events, visit www.thevillageinhoward.org. Prospective members can also call (443) 367-9043. A monthly e-mail newsletter provides schedules of activities and village needs.

The organization has an office at the Winter Growth facility, 5466 Ruth Keeton Way (next door to the Bain Center) in Harper’s Choice Village Center, Columbia.