A Concierge of Your Own

As older people try to keep living at home, having someone to call who’ll know who to call helps a lot.

A young woman helps a senior citizen.
National Journal
June 29, 2015, 5 a.m.

The old rules of aging offered the eld­erly three choices: move some­place warm, move close to the kids, or move in­to an as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity.

These op­tions had something in com­mon: They all in­volved mov­ing. But many seni­or cit­izens don’t want to leave the home and com­munity they’ve known and loved. “The whole bill of goods about be­ing old, that you are a little bit use­less and that you’ve done your thing and checked out your brain at 65, this is a ter­rible im­age of aging,” says 81-year-old Susan McWhin­ney-Morse, who re­cently re­turned home from a tour of ar­che­olo­gic­al digs in Ir­an. “We just felt that everything was wrong about how older people were treated.”

So in 1999, McWhin­ney-Morse and a group of Bo­sto­ni­ans sought to change this im­age of aging. The group wanted to de­vise a strategy to al­low them to re­main in their homes while not bur­den­ing adult chil­dren or friends. Fin­an­cially, they did not want to de­vel­op a pro­gram so ex­pens­ive that it would ex­clude lower-in­come or middle-class people from join­ing. They spent a few years re­search­ing ideas, put­ting to­geth­er a busi­ness plan, and rais­ing seed money.

In 2002, they opened the Beacon Hill Vil­lage, a non­profit net­work of seni­or cit­izens. For an an­nu­al fee ran­ging from $110 to $975, de­pend­ing on in­come and house­hold size, mem­bers have ac­cess to free ex­er­cise classes and so­cial clubs, a com­munity of like-minded seni­ors, and a small but ded­ic­ated pro­fes­sion­al staff that can ar­range for ser­vices a mem­ber might need, such as a ride to the su­per­mar­ket, nurs­ing help, and re­com­mend­a­tions for handy­men, plumb­ers, and com­puter geeks. It’s like hav­ing ac­cess to a con­ci­erge who un­der­stands the needs of the eld­erly. Mem­bers pay the vendor dir­ectly for the ser­vices they use.

“They cre­ated this concept out of noth­ing,” says Laura Con­nors, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Beacon Hill Vil­lage. “They were try­ing to demon­strate what aging can be.”

Beacon Hill Vil­lage has grown to roughly 340 mem­bers, cov­er­ing the af­flu­ent Beacon Hill and Back Bay neigh­bor­hoods along with the grit­ti­er North End. In­spired by the suc­cess in Bo­ston, an­oth­er 165 vil­lages have opened across the coun­try, serving roughly 30,000 mem­bers. The idea surged across the coun­try after The New York Times pro­filed the Bo­ston ex­per­i­ment in 2006. Its founders were so in­und­ated for ad­vice on how they got star­ted that they wrote a manu­al, now pos­ted on their web­site, for any­one in­ter­ested in try­ing the same.

These “vil­lages” have popped up in big cit­ies, small towns, and rur­al loc­ales, each one tailored to the needs of its place and founders. Rur­al vil­lages, for ex­ample, would in­volve more trans­port­a­tion op­tions and driv­ing for res­id­ents, since ser­vices are so spread out—un­like Beacon Hill, say, where even an older per­son might stroll to a nearby res­taur­ant to see friends. Each ven­ture “will lever­age what the com­munity has to of­fer,” Con­nors says.

A prob­lem that many such vil­lages share is that not every­one who has reached 65 wants to as­so­ci­ate with a pro­gram for the eld­erly. “The ‘young­er’ older adults “¦ don’t think they need it,” Con­nors says. “That’s one of our chal­lenges: How do we talk about ourselves dif­fer­ently?”

Con­sider the po­ten­tial be­ne­fits for the aged. Joan Bra­gen, a sharp 80-year-old, joined Beacon Hill Vil­lage four years ago when she real­ized that she needed oc­ca­sion­al help around her con­domin­i­um and in get­ting around Bo­ston. Liv­ing alone without a car and with her closest re­l­at­ives in New York, she has leaned on Beacon Hill Vil­lage to hire a vis­it­ing nurse after sur­gery, to find an elec­tri­cian, and to ar­range weekly rides with vo­lun­teer drivers to buy gro­cer­ies. Bra­gen has also gone with oth­er mem­bers to mu­seums and out to Tangle­wood, in west­ern Mas­sachu­setts, where the Bo­ston Sym­phony Or­ches­tra per­forms in the sum­mer­time.

“It is like hav­ing fam­ily in the neigh­bor­hood. The people from the vil­lage al­ways re­spond im­me­di­ately,” she says. “They are like a touch­stone.”

They may also be a money-saver. Ac­cord­ing to Con­nors, the Beacon Hill dir­ect­or, the “vil­lage” mod­el provides seni­ors with a cheap­er al­tern­at­ive to as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­it­ies, which can cost thou­sands of dol­lars per month. Be­sides ar­ran­ging for needed ser­vices, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s staff of­ten ne­go­ti­ates dis­counts for its mem­bers.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion has min­im­al over­head costs. Beacon Hill Vil­lage owns no prop­erty—it rents of­fice space in a one-time po­lice pre­cinct headquar­ters—and em­ploys only four people, in­clud­ing two part-timers. Just over half of its budget comes from mem­bers’ an­nu­al fees; the rest comes from found­a­tions, cor­por­a­tions, and in­di­vidu­al donors. Some of its kindred or­gan­iz­a­tions rely more on vo­lun­teers to provide ser­vices to mem­bers.

This con­ci­erge-like mod­el won’t work for all seni­ors, es­pe­cially those who suf­fer from poor health or de­men­tia or oth­er cog­nit­ive prob­lems. It works best for people who are self-suf­fi­cient enough to live at home without round-the-clock care. Just 15 per­cent of the Beacon Hill Vil­lage mem­bers are con­sidered frail, some of them re­quir­ing an aide’s home care a few hours a day.

“The vil­lage is not ne­ces­sar­ily go­ing to take care of you to the grave,” says McWhin­ney-Morse, the 81-year-old mem­ber, “but it can help you find places to go when you need more help.”

It also can provide a so­cial out­let, of­ten harder to find as people age. Be­sides the weekly runs to the gro­cery store and the cul­tur­al ex­cur­sions, mem­bers plan activ­it­ies among them­selves. One group of men tries a happy hour at a dif­fer­ent bar each month; an­oth­er group ar­gues polit­ics over cof­fee one morn­ing a week. Some mem­bers play bridge or gath­er weekly for an af­ter­noon movie—”a com­munity with­in a com­munity,” Con­nors says.

When a mem­ber’s life changes—be­cause of ill health or a spouse’s death—oth­er mem­bers can help in a non-in­trus­ive way. The same goes for the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s em­ploy­ees, who check up on feeble mem­bers without dic­tat­ing the type of care or ser­vices that any­one needs.

“What I think is re­mark­able is that it really is older people cre­at­ing something for them­selves and not look­ing to the gov­ern­ment to give us money or for someone to build something for us,” McWhin­ney-Morse says. “It is simply al­low­ing people to cre­ate how and where they want to age.”

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