Stepping gingerly down the steps, John Sears slowly makes his way out of his house to check the weather in the pretty street outside.
It was all so different two years ago. A taxi had struck him a glancing blow, breaking his knee and rendering him helpless in his five-storey, one-room-deep townhouse in Beacon Hill, one of the loveliest old parts of Boston. Though he owned his narrow house he did not have the means for the round-the-clock care that he needed to be able to recuperate at home after the accident. A care home seemed the only solution. But today, at 80, he heads back contentedly to make some tea in his kitchen.
A few streets away it’s the weekly shopping day for June Crolius, 89. She too has negotiated the steep stairs down from her small flat and has popped her head around a narrow front door to peer into the historic old brick lane in her part of Beacon Hill.
Bob Spicer is waiting reassuringly by his big shiny car. He steps up to offer her a hand to clamber aboard for the supermarket. June has her bag over her arm, her coat zipped up against the chilly wind and her thick grey hair cut pudding-bowl style without a thought to vanity. When she grins, which she does quite a lot, she shows one big front tooth.
Buying her little flat in the old house on Temple Street 30 years ago was the crowning achievement of a life that has not been easy. She is among the last of the generation born during the Depression. She chose work rather than college, got married, had four children, divorced, and brought them up in a rented house as a working mother, – an administrator at a Boston research laboratory. ‘When the last kid left for college,’ she explains, ‘I thought, “Right, now I’m going to buy something, however small”.’
That John Sears and June Crolius are able to live independently, despite those stairs and the crooked pavements that can be treacherous in rain, snow and ice, is down to Bob and the organisation he works for. It is Beacon Hill Village, a non-profit group registered as a charity that was formed by local residents 10 years ago for the very purpose of enabling themselves to grow old in their familiar surroundings – and to help their neighbours do so, too.
It helped John – one of the area’s best-loved residents after a life spent in public service – survive alone at home after his accident. Meals and cleaners were sent in, volunteers helped him up and down the steep stairs. Cars collected him for escorted trips to hospital. He had help sorting out doctors, care assistants and paying medical bills. He was taken safely to the bank and the barber. Local tradesmen arrived, too, to do jobs such as fitting handrails in his bathroom.
'The beauty of Beacon Hill Village is that it is simple and it is rooted in that old-time virtue of self-help.'
Rather to the surprise of the founders, their ‘village’ concept has become the template for the latest idea spreading through the US as the post-war baby-boom generation reaches retirement age and begins to feel the aches in its knees and the limitations of its wallet. Economists, pension fund managers, health care experts and so on are crying panic as that unprecedented population wave, used to living well, reaches old age just as the country’s economy is reeling.
Poll after poll shows that eight out of 10 people would like to grow old at home, and Beacon Hill’s home-grown innovation is showing that, at least for a fortunate few, it can be done.
The beauty of Beacon Hill Village is that it is simple, and is rooted in that old-time virtue of self-help. It has inspired similar Villages in Washington DC, Chicago and around the nation – 65 so far with 200 more currently in development; then there are another two in Australia, two in Canada, and two in the Netherlands. It has also spawned a Village to Village Network extensive enough to have hosted a conference in Oakland, California last October, which attracted more than 220 delegates.
‘I can’t lift anything heavy any more,’ says June. ‘I didn’t expect to live to this age! But as long as there’s Bob to carry the shopping up and I can walk, I can stay here. There’s nowhere else I want to go. And the Village is not just about the shopping. They help with anything. The next job is finding someone to fix my old radio so I can get the radio station I like.’
That remark has them chuckling in the attic offices that Beacon Hill Village rents around the corner on Joy Street. They will be happy to find someone to fix an old-fashioned radio set, but they can do a great deal more than that.
Crolius and all the other 385 members, aged 50 and over, pay an annual subscription of just over £400 for an individual or £580 for a household, although that falls to £70 for those with annual incomes of less than £28,500. Membership covers 60% of the budget for the offices and a full-time executive director, Judy Willett, a professional social worker and a team of part-time employees. About 15% comes from charity fundraising and selling their ‘how to’ book about the concept for £95 a copy, and the rest from donations from the wealthiest Village members.
'Professional providers of services, such as assisted living, are supplemented by volunteers.'
Governed by a board of members, it works as a sort of co-operative, combining a Village noticeboard for social events with a social services office and a concierge service. Rita Kostiak, the national co-ordinator of the Village to Village Network, defines the basic idea as a ‘consolidated provider of services’. The Village will send the nurse, but the member pays for the nursing service itself.
Kostiak divides the services into three groups: professional providers being supplemented from a roster of 60 volunteers. ‘Information and referral’ encompasses every service that might be needed, from builders to dog walkers and someone to water the plants when you go to visit the grandchildren. All ‘providers’ are vetted, and their prices approved, usually with a discount. The Village can even help a member jump the queue to get onto the books of a GP at the hospital down the road.
‘Community building services’ come from the members themselves – social events that range from special evenings at the theatre and gallery openings to weekly seminars on history or health. There are walking tours and a group known as The Second Cup meets in a coffee bar to talk politics and business.
‘Assistance with living’ becomes more important as the years mount up and Kostiak subdivides it into ‘wellness’ and ‘homecare’. Bob Spicer, who takes the older Villagers shopping, is part of this service, which comes with the membership. The Village charges just £3 a trip, and pays Bob. For ‘wellness’ the Village can send around a yoga instructor or a dietitian. For ‘homecare’ they will arrange a cook or, perhaps the most critical and delicate service, negotiate an honest health insurance deal at a discount premium to provide around-the-clock ‘end of life’ care at home.
Their oldest member died last summer at the age of 102. She died at home, which, although a sad occasion, proved a Village point. Her children, scattered around the country, had wanted to move her to a nursing home for her own safety, but they agreed to come to the offices on Joy Street to see what the members thought they could offer her. They let her stay.
‘After 10 years’ experience, we knew we could provide everything she needed, and we did,’ says Frank Mead, 75, an architect who was a founding member and is now President of the Board.
He has lived on Beacon Hill since 1961 and the Village idea came out of a terrible year, in which he lost both his wife and his father. He found himself turning to the community that he knew for help and comfort. Beacon Hill is the sort of old inner-city enclave that is rare in the US. It is among the oldest parts of Boston, climbing from the River Charles to the peak where bonfires once guided Pilgrims safely into port, bordered on one side by the grandly domed Massachusetts State House and modern offices, and on another by the Boston Common that leads to the river. Most of the houses now standing were built in the 19th century, out of red brick and to a modest scale. Tourists take pictures of the old iron street lamps that still flicker with gas flames.
'The new generation approaching retirement does not have the savings or pensions of the last.'
What makes Beacon Hill most unusual is that it is neither a boutique-and-bistro zone nor a slum. It is simply a nice place to live if you prefer character to size, and don’t care for swimming pools, extensive lawns or space to park a car.
With a population of 8,000, it is roughly divided between well-to-do professional families with children playing in quaint walled gardens, and folks growing old who bought when prices were a lot lower. It was the perfect seed bed for the Village experiment.
‘My widowed mother was calling every week in a state of fear because someone was telling her she needed a new roof or a new car – sadly, these rip-offs happen to the elderly in this country – and I realised she needed help,’ says Mead.
‘If she lived here, instead of in a traditional retirement community in Florida, it would have been easier. And as I had this thought, I was feeling despondent, and needed the opportunity through friends or programmes to travel, or see a museum, things that offer social intercourse. That’s what people want. And talking with friends we thought: we need a village!’
Steve Roop, who is Chairman of the Board and, at just 61, a newly minted retiree, slaps his head and says: ‘Doh! You see! That simple… a village.’ Roop, an environmental consultant who was once a senior Massachusetts state official, is immersed in public life.
‘The key to the Village idea is demographics,’ he says. ‘It won’t work everywhere – not, for instance, in a sprawling suburb. You need density, but also demography, a place of like-minded people with places to go with groups of friends. Economics and class have something to do with it, too. That’s why it is spreading: the new generation approaching retirement does not have the savings nor the pensions of the last, but they are voracious consumers of services, and they recognise the Village as an efficient model.’
The American super-rich will never need a village. They already have their own, with their servants and jets and private clinics. For the multi-millionaire level below them, there are retirement communities that will happily escort you on a 20 to 30-year journey from the golf links to the in-house funeral parlour with all the luxury and care of a five-star hotel.
At the other end of the economic scale, the poor simply cannot pay; although there have been suggestions of ways in which less affluent urban communities could adapt the Village model and plug it in to what public service provision exists in the US.
But there is an expanding section in the middle for which the idea offers a way of maximising their resources for a comfortable retirement within the communities they know. It is significant that the Village concept ‘went viral’ without help from government or institution.
Word spread through the media, first with an article in the magazine of the American Association of Retired People (AARP) in 2005 and then a year later in The New York Times. It was the Times article that really lit the fuse.
‘We had 200 emails within a week of it coming out,’ says Rita Kostiak, ‘and ended up fielding more than 2,000 queries. We were just then writing the Founders’ Manual. It was good timing.’
The article featured John Sears – the man who had been hit by a taxi. His story – and his character, a figure deeply rooted in time and place – caught the mood of a generation who, like him, just want to grow old at home.
‘I would be desperately unhappy to have to move,’ John says. ‘America has sadly lacked a sense of community, and this Village effort is rediscovering it.
‘I do hope it spreads.’
The Village concept in the UK?
Saga is investigating the Beacon Hill Village concept with great interest. We aim to run a trial in the UK to see whether a similar model, adapted for British society, would work here.
If you would be interested, potentially, in creating and/or helping to organise a Village set-up in your local area, please get in touch. We will add your name to a list of potential founder-members and keep you in touch with our progress.
Simply send us your name and contact details – an email address especially – together with a brief description of the kind of skills you might be able to offer and the experience you possess. Please accept our apologies, but at this stage we are not able to engage in correspondence or answer further questions about the scheme.
Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or write to: Saga Villages Project, The Saga Building, Enbrook Park, Folkestone, Kent CT20 3SE