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Age-in-Community Neighborhoods: Bringing New Life to Aging

Article submitted by Arnie Snyder, Littleton, Colorado.

In a charming, early 1900s-vintage Denver neighborhood, residents are bringing new life to an age-old tradition. Within three short years, they have created a thriving community of inter-connected life with a small town look and feel. Designed for the over-55 population, Washington Park Cares, Inc. is on a mission to help seniors remain in their own homes, with access to services, resources, and community engagement. The 130-member community is inter-generational; members and volunteers represent a broad age span.

The Age-in-Community movement is surging in cities across the U.S. Also called Age-in-Place Communities, or Villages, more than 50 such neighborhood organizations have sprung up from coast to coast. Like Washington Park Cares, most have been inspired by the pioneering example of Boston’s Beacon Hill Village. The socioeconomics of these groups reflect a diversity of education and income. Some operate with a small paid staff; nearly all rely extensively on volunteers. Dues may be nominal, or several hundred dollars per year. No two communities are quite alike. Each is uniquely adapted to its constituency.

Desire and need for community are deeply ingrained in our genes and in our heritage. Once established, an Age-in-Community neighborhood gains momentum by doing exactly what it is intended to do: Serve one another in ways which keep the neighborhood intact. After all, 90% of Americans want to remain in their own homes as they age. Why not help each other to accomplish a shared goal?

Of course, organization, leadership, and grass roots commitment are necessary for any community to function smoothly. The investment of time and labor is well worth the effort.

Most neighborhoods offer a call-in help line for members. The caller may need a trustworthy vendor to paint the house or mow the lawn; a volunteer for a trip to the doctor or store; or maybe, just someone to talk to. “One call does it all” is the user-friendly motto.

Social, educational, and entertainment events are vital components of an age-in-community neighborhood. Regular events – as simple as a walk in the park or a pot luck meal – encourage seniors to get out and to stay active. Projects or tasks can give just about everyone something useful to do, according to their ability. Shared experiences are a lubricant for the mechanism of successful community.

With so many benefits, why wouldn’t every over-55 person sign up for membership, if available in his or her community? Let’s look at some of the more common objections.

First, seeing is believing. During the start-up phase, the organization isn’t tangible, hence may not be credible. No services, no track record, no references – just promises.

Second, new organization or old, it takes a while for the message to sink in. This requires repetition. Think of how many times you’ve driven past a billboard or seen an advertisement before you become conscious of it. The message has to be repeated on multiple occasions and in different formats to move people over the threshold of awareness.

Some objections are due to innate resistance. At the top of the list is denial. Few of us are enthusiastic about getting old and needing help, so the idea of an age-in-community neighborhood may get the reaction, “What’s that got to do with me?” Closely related is the objection of the rugged individualist, who prides himself on the ability to go it alone.

Unfortunately, these may be the folks who will fall off a ladder or slip on the stairs. Denial or a sense of invulnerability may be dashed against hard reality. However, many a resister is open to becoming a member-volunteer, for the benefit of those who do need help. Once they’re in, they are more likely to accept a bit of friendly help to clean the downspouts and gutters.

Another objection to joining may be presented by those who would like the organization to be around when they have a need, but won’t support it until then. So if they like free stuff, they can be invited to complimentary events and maybe discover how much fun they’re missing.

Obstacles can be overcome, even if the initial perception is about being old or needy. The fact is, age-in-community neighborhoods are robust not because of, nor in spite of, anyone’s frailty. It is due rather to the strength of like-minded neighbors helping neighbors. Community is not about dying, but about living.

Age-in-Community isn’t merely a fad, it’s a new and incredibly effective way to respond together to the challenge of growing older. It may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

© 2010, All Rights Reserved by O. Arnold Snyder