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Aging in America

One basic demographic fact is that life expectancy has been trending up around the world for more than a hundred years.

A corresponding political fact is that the concept of setting a retirement age and providing a retirement pension emerged in the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution.

Now put these two facts in the context of the American culture where high mobility has produced the common phenomenon of children living away from their parents far enough to make daily or weekly care impractical. The result is rapid growth in retirement communities since the 1950s, numbering in excess of 40,000 today.

As so often happens in human life, the proliferation of retirement communities produced a backlash, a counter-current, in the form of “the village movement”. Many older people in relatively well-educated and upper-middle income neighborhoods decided they didn’t want to leave their vibrant communities for the “sterile” environment of a retirement community. For some of them, cost was a factor. The best retirement communities have stiff entrance fees and it seemed possible to have a more interesting retired life at a lower cost by staying in one’s house among longtime neighbors and friends.

Out of this counter-current emerged the “Beacon Hill Village” in Boston in 2001. A group of neighbors decided to organize, pay into a common fund, and develop a set of activities and relationships to help each other remain in their homes to the end of their lives as an alternative to moving into a retirement community. This was the beginning of the “aging-in-place” Village Movement.

People in similar neighborhoods in other cities soon began establishing their own “villages”. My wife and I were among the 8 founders in 2008 of the Dupont Circle Village (DCV), in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in downtown Washington DC. It was not the first village to be established in Washington DC, but it is now one of the largest and most active in the city—with more than 275 members.

Villages are self-governing nonprofit organizations. They can start with as few as a dozen members, but they need to reach a certain size to be able to have a paid staff. Without paid staff, it seems impossible to provide members enough services to make joining attractive. The higher the annual dues paid by each member the more staff that can be hired and the more services can be provided, but lower dues make building membership easier. This financial reality makes starting a Village quite challenging and it’s how quite a few attempts to create a Village have failed. However, once membership reaches a critical mass—as happened with the DCV—it becomes possible to reduce the dues.

In the case of the DCV, it took almost ten years to build up to 200 members, with a basic full-service annual dues level that funded one full-time staff member and one half-time staff member, plus one “case manager” and two contractors. By 2022, with more than 275 members, we had one full-time and two half-time staff members.

From what I’ve seen, the success of the DCV has much to do with an exceptional group of volunteers who devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to build up the Village to its current size. They have been officers and members of the Board of Directors, committee members, and leaders of special projects, all on an unpaid basis.

The basic annual dues level is $400 for an individual and $700 for a “household”. The dues are half of these amounts for members between the ages of 55 and 65, and the dues drop to zero at the age of 85 for people who have been members for at least three years. There is a much lower dues rate for people with low incomes. One interesting twist is that the Village community is divided between members who need services and members who volunteer their time to provide services to other members or help with administration. Dues paid by the second group can be claimed as charitable donations on their income tax filings.

I would divide DCV programs into two categories: service and social. A typical service is driving members to and from doctors’ appointments. Others are providing meals to members recovering from an operation (e.g., hip replacement) or a hospitalization, and organizing organized vaccination clinics.

The range of social activities is impressive and constantly changing as the seasons change and as our city changes. The DCV has a number of clubs: book club, knitting club, movie club, mahjong club, etc. The DCV arranges museum tours, cultural outings, happy hours, and potlucks for groups of members. The DCV holds a birthday party every month for members born in that month. During the Covid-19 pandemic, DCV pivoted to a virtual environment for all programs, with guest speakers appearing in Zoom sessions .

Dues alone are not sufficient to keep the DCV operating at its high level. For more than ten years, an annual Gala evening with a silent auction has yielded crucial funding. Like so many other NGOs, the DCV has an annual appeal for donations and encourages members to include the DCV in their estate plans.

A fascinating question for me is how the Village Movement will evolve in the coming decades. The optimistic possibility is that it will grow like topsy as the US population continues to age. The pessimistic possibility is that the gap between high-income and low-income households will increase to the point where a social revolt occurs in which Villages become targets of angry low-income mobs. Village members might respond by moving into well-defended gated communities. Most likely, however, is a new pattern of urban/suburban/rural life in the USA, driven by the global challenges of climate change and infectious disease and governance, that is impossible to discern now.


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