I have belonged to a “village”

— that new aging in community concept — in downtown Boston for over 10 years. Beacon Hill Village is a member-driven organization for local residents 50 and older, which provides programs and services so that members can lead active, vibrant, and healthy lives while living in their own homes and neighborhoods as they age. For many, that will be for as long as they live. For others less fortunate, the choice to stay at home may become more complex, sometimes impossible. But the fact remains that most of us want to be autonomous, linked to our own neighborhoods and able to pursue our own lifestyle as we age.

The elements that enable us to thrive — and I believe most village members feel they do — vary greatly from person to person and from month to month. I rarely avail myself of all the opportunities and services that our village has to offer. I am healthy, happily married to an active retired lawyer, and surrounded by wonderful family. Life is good. Yet I depend on our village in a very deep sense. And, I really love our village.

Life at Beacon Hill Village

by Susan McWhinney-Morse

I love our village because it espouses community engagement, healthy lifestyles, and intellectual stimulation; it is run by and for our members; but it mandates nothing, and it has no requirements or restrictions other than paying an annual fee.

I love our village because it is reflective of the neighborhood in which I live. With nearly 400 members, it is a magnetic combination of the vigorous and the frail, the new old and the very old, the rich and the urban poor. (Contrary to myth, Beacon Hill and Back Bay, the neighborhoods our village covers, is not just an enclave for the wealthy. Twenty percent of our population over age 65 live near or at the poverty line.) We are a diverse group representing a variety of backgrounds and interests. We meet in both structured meetings and casual settings, in large groups as well as small, informal gatherings. Some members attend stretch classes, walking groups, and tai chi, while others meet informally for a cocktail or potluck. At any gathering, one finds canes and walkers, running shoes, and high heels. Some members are actively involved in the life of the village; others rarely or never appear at any gathering nor request any support or services. They are just happy to know that the village exists and is there if and when they should need it.

Searching for a Better Way

The prospect of aging, particularly in our culture rampant with ageism, is disconcerting, even frightening to many people. These feelings were the impetus for a small group of us to gather in 1999. Each of us had witnessed firsthand the distress our relatives experienced as they aged: a mother in a retirement community in Florida who felt lonely and abandoned; a parent in a nursing home, marginalized and overdrugged; an uncle with very limited means and no immediate family to help out. We found these prevalent scenarios shocking and unacceptable — and we were determined to find another way.

It did not take us long to discover that the conventional wisdom about aging well was deeply flawed and limited. The first piece of advice we all received was to MOVE: to a warmer climate, to continuing care retirement communities, to senior housing near our children. Why, we asked, should we have to pull up our roots from a community we love just to be “safe”? Why did we need to lose our history, our friends, our identity? Why did we have to compromise our lifestyles before it became absolutely necessary, just to fit into a pre-designed community? In my opinion, senior congregate housing is “warehousing the elderly.” Why would we ask our children whose lives were already hectic with jobs and children to take us on, too? And what about financial considerations? Moving is an option available only to a small group of us who could afford it. Although we conceded that warmer climates and segregated communities were good choices for some people, they were not a viable or attractive option for us.

Sadly, the only other option for most people was to just stay put, to downsize, perhaps cut way back on expenses if necessary, and hope for the best. For those on very limited budgets there are community-based, government-sponsored programs, but that leaves the majority of us on our own. Alone. A pretty grim option for anyone.

Beacon Hill Village, a member-driven organization for Boston residents
50 and over, allows members to lead vibrant, active and healthy lives,
while living in their own homes and neighborhoods. Click on image

Our small group of 11 neighbors spent two years studying all aspects of aging, dreaming of solutions. Though discouraged at moments, in the end we prevailed.

In the winter of 2002 our group came up with a plan for aging well that was so grounded in common sense, so available to all older people, and so responsive to our needs and wants, that we could scarcely believe that it did not already exist. It is a 21st–century update of the way things, in an ideal world, are supposed to be but with an important fail safe component: we form partnerships with healthcare professionals and community organizations that help us advance our mission to remain at home and stay healthy and connected to our community.

In doing so, we totally rejected the hierarchical system of the past, which was designed to take care of us, make choices for us and keep us safe. That system is one that all too often patronizes and infantilizes us. It is also a system that is unaffordable for so many older people. The concept of partnership brought about a paradigm shift in the way we age. It has instant appeal. And most remarkable of all, it is affordable. As of this writing, there are 96 open villages stretched across 38 states, 4 villages internationally and over 100 villages in development. We are now all linked together by a Web-based network called the Village to Village Network — vtvnetwork.org.

I love going to my weekly political discussion group. It is full of informed, articulate people with strong opinions. I love seeing how organs are made, how bronze is cast, how a totally green office building in Cambridge was constructed. I will be forever indebted to the caterer who served dinner to my family the day I came home from the hospital with a new knee. All this courtesy of Beacon Hill Village.

But what is most important to me is I have entered an older age still in control of my life, still a contributing member of my community, still a known member of my neighborhood. There are moments when all of us, as we age, search for new meaning in life. As children we learn; as adults we earn. What is it we do with this gift we have received — the gift of longevity? My friends and I, and all the baby boomers who are following us, must at some point confront this question. I believe that being a member of the village has left me free to explore my tomorrow in a healthy and informed way with little anxiety or worry about my future. I know where to find support and information and friendship when and if I need it. That is what villages are all about. I also know that it is up to me to forge a healthy and happy future. Beacon Hill Village is here to help me to accomplish this goal.

After a career in marketing and fundraising, Susan McWhinney-Morse was haunted when her mother-in law, after being placed in a nursing home, said, “Here, I’m just an old woman. I’ve lost my identity.” In 2002, at age 69, McWhinney-Morse and a group of Boston residents created Beacon Hill Village to give people over 50 the support and services they need to retain their identities by “aging in community,” in their own homes.