The Village network

The biggest difficulty in doing care differently is often to deal with the smallest problems - to provide that ‘little bit of help’, like shopping when someone has just come out of hospital.

In the United States, there is a rapidly growing network of organisations doing just that, quietly but effectively, yet it is one we have been slow to notice and even slower to consider developing ourselves.

Perhaps the problem is the name. In England, the term ‘village’ conjures up cricket and pubs but these ‘villages’ are in fact virtual organisations, grassroots and volunteer-led. They have been set up in over 200 US neighbourhoods (with a further 150 in development) in 45 states and their express aim is to ensure that residents (the average village has around 100) are able to ‘age in community’ rather than just ‘age in place’.

To do that they provide a range of services, coordinated by a (usually) paid member of staff and a wide group of volunteers. The services vary from village to village but typically include:

  • social and educational activities and trips
  • Lifts to hospital and shops (and shopping if someone is unable to get out themselves)
  • health and wellness activities like exercise and yoga
  • home repairs and home maintenance, such as installing a smoke alarm
  • Befriending services for residents with limited mobility
  • Access to vetted, discounted suppliers.

Other services occur where there is demand or where there are volunteers with particular skills that can be exploited. When I visited the US in 2016 and earlier this year, the other sorts of services I heard about included:

  • technology support – helping someone get online etc.
  • home from hospital services
  • daily check-ins by phone
  • home watch while someone is away
  • gardening and yard work

Services often develop out of volunteer skills. One village I learnt about has a volunteer who attends medical appointments with members to take notes for them. She began offering the service because she’d provided it to her own mother.

Other services can also be provided. In a village I visited last year, they even offered care coordination from a qualified social worker but this is unusual. Nor do villages themselves provide home care, though around half of them do have referral arrangements with local providers.

How the villages work

The villages are charities and are run by a volunteer board. They are funded by membership fees – around US$400 a year is typical (with discounts for low-income residents) – and by fundraising.  

There are now around 25,000 village members across the US and the typical member is female, 76 and lives alone. Members report a range of benefits from village membership, including:

  • Increased connection with other people (56%)
  • more ability to rely on other people when needed (55%)
  • increased ability to get the help they need to stay in their home (50%)

Many members also report increased ability to care for their home (29%) and to get to the places they want to go (20%).

Nearly half say their quality of life has improved because of the village, 1 in 7 says their medical care has improved and in 1 in 12 says their health is better. Many of these benefits are particularly reported by members who are older (85+) and live alone.

All this for $400 a year.

Why then have we not heard more about them?

Perhaps the answer is that village members are not at all diverse. Village are overwhelmingly middle class and white. Three quarters of village members are college graduates and 94% are white. Only 15% are on a low income.

The village movement is aware of this and attempting to tackle it. Many villages offer discounted fees for people on lower incomes for example and there are active attempts to diversify villages and to see if the model fits for African-American or Latino communities. However there is no real indication at the moment that these efforts will succeed.

A second issues is around sustainability. A typical village costs around US$140,000 to run but membership fees cover only around a third to a half of that figure. The remainder has to be raised from fundraising. Some villages fail because of it.

A third issue is about long-term effects. The first village was only established 15 years ago and many villages haven’t been around long enough to properly measure impact. 

Despite these issues, the remarkable growth of the village movement suggests a model that can effectively support older people to effectively age within their communities at a small cost. As well as the US, there are now a handful of villages in the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

Could villages work in the UK? Probably they already are, in some areas – grassroots organisations providing support to an ageing population but just not calling themselves Villages.

But could they grow? Surely the answer is yes: villages have huge potential to provide that ‘little bit of help’ many of us will need as we grow older.

More information about the Village movement, including how to set one up, is available from its membership organisation, the Village to Village Network.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the blog’s author alone and do not necessarily represent those of Independent Age. Independent Age is not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied in blogs by external contributors.