We offer a note of thanks to Molly Singer at the Capitol Hill Village in Washington, D.C., an established senior village, for taking the time allow for my visit. — Joy Intriago, President
While standing in a coffee shop line a few weeks ago, during a trip I took with my husband to find a second home in a city like New York or Washington, D.C., a fellow line-stander allowed an older man to break the line. She commented to me how difficult it is to “grow old in a city”. Interestingly, my husband and I were looking for a city-home to age in because we suspected it offered more stimulation and conveniences. Thus, her comment prompted me to give the thought behind her remark much more importance than I might have otherwise.
You see, we now live in rural Maine which is breathtakingly beautiful but can be solitary especially in the winter. My husband and I are part of the “young-old”, being 77 and 65 years old. My response to my coffee-line companion that “cities offer a lot more for older people” did not please her. She said, “at least outside of the city you can drive”. Considering that transportation is one of the leading challenges for seniors and is a leading reason that seniors don’t socialize, made me decide that it was going to be a long discussion and not likely to change her mind.
At roughly this same time, I had begun research on the Senior Village Model for publication on my Seasons.com blog. That research, led me to the Village to Village Network, an organization that supports senior villages around the U.S. I could see on the nicely-done interactive Village map, which it maintains, that villages are abundant around the country but especially in urban areas.
If you are not familiar with the village model, learn more about it by reading our recent article on the topic https://seasons.com/starting-senior-village/.
In mid-April, while in Washington, D.C. (on the same stimulating home search mission), I was fortunate to be able to visit with Ms. Molly Singer, Executive Director at Capitol Hill Village (CHV) to learn about this established village program.
First, I must tell you that this organization has been around for more than 10 years and it was founded by a group of residents who have known each other for years and have worked together on other community programs. What a new organization can offer will not be the same as the ten-plus-year-old Capitol Hill Village which is a well-organized non-profit. Additionally, establishing the type of volunteer chemistry (which CHV had from the beginning) will need to be developed over time for maximum effectiveness. I mention the above because the success of a village is not always immediate, and the founding group needs to have patience while developing a fully functioning organization.
Importance of the Board
Ms. Singer, who joined Capitol Hill Village after they had been operating for seven years, brought many skills from her rich experience in consulting with non-profit organizations, so she understood the importance of board development. She made one of her first missions to assist the board in converting to a more skills-based group rather than consisting of primarily founding members. By adding skills and people with different backgrounds, the organization was able to leverage new networks. By infusing the board and the organization with a new web of connections, the organization began to serve in different ways and expanded its reach.
Ms. Singer emphasizes that her management style underscores the importance of “yielding” to ideas proposed by members, board members and volunteers. New ideas are not received with why they may not work or instructions on how to accomplish them. Rather, Ms. Singer “yields” by letting the generator of the idea proceed with the idea. By asking proponents to take ownership of their proposal and to evaluate, promote it for board approval, and implement it, the organization succeeds in initiating more programs through committed and involved participants.
Importance of volunteers
Ms. Singer stresses that even though growing membership is important, it is just as vital to establish and grow a volunteer network. Members are encouraged to become involved. The membership section of the CHV website says “Membership in CHV is a two-way street. 90% of activities and programs depend on members and volunteers to design and coordinate.”
In my visit, I was introduced to a volunteer who was responding to all the emails from members’ requests for services which could include transportation, assistance at home, or updates in ongoing cases. This manual task of reviewing correspondence and interacting with members is one of the ways that the organization can keep in touch with the members.
The CHV Volunteer Coordinator was dealing with a very anxious member, who had just returned home from the hospital and was concerned about getting her cat returned from the sitter (not only for cost reasons but companionship!). Soon a CHV volunteer was heading to the cat sitter to retrieve the cat and transport it to her happy owner.
One of my first questions to Ms. Singer was how they marketed the organization and recruited new members. She quickly pointed out that they don’t want new members just to reach big numbers. Instead, the organization’s success, she said, will only be achieved if there is the right balance between members needing services and volunteers who are able to deliver services. Even though CHV employs professional staff, the volume of services delivered by CHV can only be accomplished with a complement of well-trained and committed volunteers.
CHV is promoted through some advertising and by programs that are open to the public such as Village Voices, a monthly evening lecture series it presents on topics such as political media, religious architecture, American foodways, archives from war-torn areas, the US military’s evolution in accepting LGBTQ individuals.
Programs and resources
CHV offers numerous programs for the members. Health and wellness events are ongoing, as are monthly lunchtime Wellness Cafes, technical knowledge courses and many other seminars and symposia. It offers more than 500 social/wellness and 50 educational programs and events each year for the benefit of members.
CHV also provides an extensive transportation program including AARP safe driver classes; Train Navigators (which helps new residents use public transportation), several “Talking Transportation” focus groups that document incentives and impediments to transportation, and peer-to-peer connecting and networking which ensures that community members share strategies, borrow ideas, and get connected to learn from one another.
A Vetted Vendors list is another resource for members that CHV maintains providing referrals to reputable, tested vendors for home repairs, legal services, transportation and more.
Probably just as important as many of the programs identified above, are the social activities that CHV hosts for its members. Keeping members engaged in games, movies, book groups, museum-visits and providing opportunities to exercise with three established walking groups, yoga, and Tai Chi leads to a happier, more engaged life. A key to the social programs is that they are not clubs so a member can participate as time permits.
CHV serves a three-square mile area. Residents outside of that area may join under a social membership but are not eligible for the services.
Members can get a variety of volunteer help: around the house, changing light bulbs, re-arranging furniture, gardening, running errands or a ride to the doctor. CHV also has a more intensive help component called Care Services which is run managed by two social workers and includes 32 trained volunteers, called Village Connections Volunteers. Volunteers receive quarterly training on aging and care issues and are paired one-on-one with a member with whom they cultivate a relationship and may help them go through mail, visit the doctor, or talk about a hobby. The key is a consistent connection. They are valuable extensions of the staff.
Care services fall into three categories: (1) Resources and referrals: the organization provides information and support for housing, rehab centers, insurance information, home modifications, home care and more. (2) Short term case management services for a time when a resident is transitioning from the hospital or rehab back to the home (the most intensive services provided) and (3) long- term service is for those members who require weekly or biweekly counting and case management. This could be for family caregivers, memory concerns or mental or other chronic illnesses. About 100 of the 500 members are a part of Care Services each year.
Interestingly, membership revenues only make up 30% of the total budget and that grants, fundraising events and government funding comprises the rest of the $1.1 million budget. As CHV can more accurately measure the impact of their programs on the health of its members, Ms. Singer plans to try to attract the attention of organizations interested in supporting better health outcomes as possible sources for grants.
Recommendations for new senior villages
Based on my interviews with Ms. Singer, I formulated the following helpful recommendations for communities starting a new senior village.
- “Just do it”. Start providing the services. Do little things and get involved in the community to learn more. Plant a garden, plan a movie outing, without waiting until the formal organization has been formed.
- Yield to ideas. Be open to suggestions from everyone and allow participants to develop ideas independently. Of course, the organization will need to eventually approve official programs, but volunteers can develop, plan and ultimately present to the board properly developed ideas and programs.
- Encourage members to serve as volunteers. Communicate the expectation that volunteering is a part of the price and responsibility of membership.
- Develop a culture of service between and for the members as opposed to a club-type organization.
- Remember that social activities are as important as the delivery of services.
Seek guidance from others. An organization like the Village to Village Network can be very helpful for communities that are just starting out. https://www.vtvnetwork.org/