Kept Apart by Virus, Seniors Find Support in Virtual Villages

The concept of the village is based on the idea that seniors are stronger when they work together.

Islander Barbara Wells remembers back in 2002 when a small group of seniors in Boston found a solution that would guarantee that they could stay linked to their community, while at the same time allowing them to live independently — a solution that is now being put in place on Vashon.

At the time, Wells lived near the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, watching residents shape what would become a major nonprofit senior member organization, the first of its kind in the nation. In the years to come, the model they devised, called “virtual villages,” would inspire a network of hundreds of similar organizations.

Currently, there are about 280 villages in operation throughout the United States, with another 80 in development.

Beacon Hill is near first-class hospital care, shopping and recreation at Boston Common. From the outside, it would seem the lifestyle possible there would be enough to satisfy most needs. But during a Zoom call with several panelists, center staff and guests last month, Wells explained that those who sought to age in place in their community wanted structure and, most importantly, companionship.

“Much has changed since the beginning of Beacon Hill Village, but the need for social connection, that’s huge,” she said.

Village members are offered replete opportunities to socialize during the year in exchange for the annual dues they pay. If they need repairs around the home, they can trust that the village has screened vendors for referrals such as carpenters and plumbers. Qualified volunteers who undergo background checks will help them with anything they need, from scheduling a doctor’s appointment to walking the dog, going grocery shopping and preparing meals.

The concept of the village is based on the idea that seniors are stronger when they work together, and it promotes an active, engaged lifestyle to improve health and reduce loneliness. Each has its own culture and priorities. The emphasis on relationships, mutual values, and shared understandings that allow individuals and groups to trust one another and cooperate to achieve positive outcomes, known as social capital, is central to the village model.

Beacon Hill Village soon expanded to include seniors living all over Boston. The group then went on to help found the Village-To-Village Network, a national organization that represents and advocates for senior villages, as well as seeks local, state, and federal solutions to issues affecting the elderly, such as housing, healthcare, insurance and transportation — a particular challenge for the elderly on Vashon who need to get around, especially with COVID-19 safety to consider.

Over the years, many of these problems have affected senior citizens on Vashon, who have become isolated while living in dispersed neighborhoods that operate more like small communities of their own across the island, despite the efforts of many local and regional organizations to address them.

Vashon’s residents are already well connected, by necessity, and well established. Wells mentioned the much-beloved book series “Islanders, Meet Your Neighbors,” written by Dorothy Hall-Bauer, who died at the age of 98 this year, recounting the life stories of notable locals familiar to many who call Vashon home. But growing old is hard even when you have neighbors to rely on, and without the support they need, some island seniors may find it too difficult to get by on their own, forced to move to the mainland where friends, families, and costly hired home care can assist with daily tasks.

Now there is another way. Last summer, King County awarded the Vashon Senior Center a $416,000 four-year grant, made possible by the Veterans, Seniors, and Community Services Levy, to introduce a new neighborhood-based virtual village initiative on Vashon that would better serve the island’s senior populations outside of the brick-and-mortar building on Bank Road. The program will soon be launched with three pilot neighborhoods, including Gold Beach, Spring Beach and Town. Part of the money from the county will be paid towards scholarships to participants who are unable to afford annual fees.

The emergence of virtual villages comes as the oldest baby boomers turned 74 last year, according to the Census Bureau. This pattern is not going to slow down. By 2030, all boomers will be at least 65 years of age, a result of the generational change sometimes referred to as a “gray tsunami.”

Furthermore, by 2034, older adults are expected to outnumber children under the age of 18 for the first time in American history.

Eddie Rivas, a Village-To-Village board member who served on the staff of the United States House Select Committee on Aging, said that with so many people approaching retirement age at once, both the demand and expense of long-term care and resources that older people will ultimately need will be exponential. Many people may not qualify for Medicaid-funded programs but also cannot cover the costs of private assisted living or home care, finding themselves stuck in the middle with nowhere to turn.

“And that’s where the village model really sets a really nice example, for how we as neighbors can support each other,” he said during the Zoom session, adding that, having no adult children, he was attracted to the model after thinking about a time in the future when he and his wife would not have anyone looking after them. “The idea of creating a community, with neighbors in our community, and creating those mutual supports, was so important,” he said.

The village model, according to Barbara Sullivan, National Director of the Village-To-Village Network, enhances existing programs without inventing new ones while staying versatile enough to fit well anywhere.

“It’s back to that basic neighbor helping neighbor [principle],” she said. “I think in society, we got away from helping each other, and if anything, this pandemic has shown us more than ever that we need each other. We need our community’s support.”

Joining a village provides people with a feeling of security and a sense of worth as if they are a part of something greater than themselves while still having their basic needs met, according to islander Jeanne Marie Thomas. She was previously the executive director of Northeast Seattle Together, or NEST, a nonprofit virtual village that serves 13 Seattle neighborhoods and provides important, considerate support to area seniors, including nonmembers.

“It’s very distinct from a social services organization, where there’s service delivery networks set up and they deliver things to you. This has community members supporting each other. And that’s what I love,” she said in an interview.

The sheer disruption of COVID-19, on the other hand, works against the reasons seniors had for creating villages in the first place, namely, the desire for solidarity and some semblance of control over the trials in later life, even as older people continue to adapt to the changes it has brought.

Thomas, who is now a board member of the Wider Horizons village in Central Seattle, pointed out that, in some instances, the pandemic has actually improved accessibility for those who have struggled to connect, such as via video conferencing with friends and loved ones, or telemedicine over conventional in-person appointments with physicians that required travel.

But in other ways, COVID-19 is putting the sense of belonging that membership in a virtual village fosters to the test.

“I think that in some ways it’s taught us new lessons. But I will say, one of our members of Wider Horizons, the other day, I asked her, ‘What do you miss the most?’ And she said ‘hugs.’”

Despite the challenges, members and volunteers are not discouraged. Only a handful of villages in the country have suspended operations. While problems with internet connectivity remain, NEST has been able to pivot, bringing most of its membership online where it continues to provide a wide range of programming and assistance, such as planning vaccine appointments, according to Chris Alin, Director of Operations. In addition, the group has collaborated with Seattle Parks and Recreation for some socially-distanced outdoor programming.

The mission of villages, she said, remains the same regardless of the current state of affairs: to reach and connect as many isolated seniors as possible. The pandemic is moving people to innovate, just like the seniors who built the first village back in Boston.

“The way it hit, you know, it hit hard. And it really changed the outlook on what we’re capable of doing,” she said.

Back on the island, Evy Horton, Vashon Village Program Manager, noted that members will be able to select the path for their village rather than having one dictated to them. However, she hopes that the ideals embodied in the village model, such as maintaining independence and respecting the dignity of aging, will inspire people at any stage of their life to focus on what it means to grow older.

“If we all shift our thinking that way, you can see that it really is a beautiful model,” she said. “I feel like if it can work anywhere, it can work on Vashon. And I hope that it does.”