Growing older in an urban village

April 1, 2013
Anthony Holdsworth
Anthony Holdsworth

The prospect of ending one’s day in a nursing home strikes terror in the hearts of many of us who pioneered communal living in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s not just the weak tea, limp sandwiches and sing-a-longs we dread but the lack of autonomy, choice, and the company of potentially boring strangers.

Some of us are starting to plan an alternative universe for the years ahead. Often it’s women leading the conversations, worried about ageing alone; these are women who have run businesses or held senior jobs and are accustomed to controlling their own lives. But now that men are living longer, too, it’s occurring to them that being bossed around by home care workers or patronised by nursing home staff is not ideal. This might be a misleading stereotype about current services but it’s spurred the move for something different.

A return to communal living is not necessarily on the agenda. Shorn of the casual sex, drugs and partying, shared households might not be much fun. What’s being proposed now is the creation of “urban villages” which have nothing to do with retirement villages. It’s a model that allows members to stay in their own homes and, in return for an annual fee to the “village” organisation, access discounted services from vetted trades-people and home-help; volunteer drivers, and book and theatre groups, and whatever else the members choose to organise. This used to happen organically – friends helping friends, neighbours being neighbourly, the generations mingling, and the elderly being cared for. But increasingly, community hubs or urban villages just don’t happen; someone has to organise them.

Helen L’Orange is part of a group in the Waverton/Wollstonecraft area in Sydney that’s exploring the idea of a grass roots-driven organisation that will offer paid-up members social and cultural activities and practical assistance. The aim is to make the area a better place to grow old together. Soon after Helen moved into the area she cut her finger badly, and needed help to staunch the blood, get the finger bandaged, and get to the doctor for stitches. She knew one neighbour then who fortunately was home. In the best of possible worlds, it seemed to Helen later, a person in her situation needed to know at least six people close at hand who could be called on. “We want to build on the sense of community that’s already here,” she said.

Of interest to the Waverton group is the original member-driven, ageing-in-place hub that began in Beacon Hill, a neighbourhood of Boston, in 2001. A group of well-to-do elderly set up an organisation to provide services and outings to those who signed up.  About 450 joined and paid annual fees of $550 for an individual, $750 for a household; a couple of staff were hired as managers, volunteers were recruited from among members and the broader community as home visitors and drivers; and cut-price deals struck with vetted tradesmen and other service providers. Since Beacon Hill began, about 100 similar “villages” with an average 150 members have started in the US. The usual village boundary is about 16 km, as far as most volunteers will travel.

One of the gurus of the movement, Candace Baldwin, was in Adelaide last week, to speak at the Mobility for Life forum, sponsored by the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia. “Because the members get to drive the decisions and design the services, it takes out the paternalistic, top-down approach,” she told me. “Take transport; often existing community transport services can take you to doctors’ appointments but can’t take you to visit your friends. The new model is about choice and independence.” But managing a grass-roots organisation is not easy, and some urban villages, including Beacon Hill, have suffered declining membership. It can be an uphill battle to recruit new members because people say, “I don’t need it now, I’ll join when I do.” Also it’s like managing a small business, Candace said. In return for their joining fees, clients expect professional management and a good service.

Given Australia has an extensive government-subsidised Home and Community Care program to provide help for people to stay in their homes, do we need these consumer-initiated hubs? The federal government as part of its huge reform of aged care has committed to 100,000 home care packages over ten years with a new focus on more client choice. Extra care fees will be imposed. Full-pensioners will be exempt; part-pensioners will pay up to $5000 a year and non-pensioners $10,000 with a life-time cap of $60,000.

Helen L’Orange says: “There’s this huge wave of baby boomers and even with the expansion of Home and Community Care places there aren’t going to be nearly enough. I want to age here in this community where I can access a one-stop network. I have a reasonable income and I want to be able to make choices.” It seems to me grass roots groups, for all the work involved, offer the potential for friendship and community. Government- provided services offer broad coverage and professionalism. Australia doubtless has room for both.

The Waverton group is asking interested North Sydney locals over 50 to fill out a survey to gauge the level of interest and what they want from such a hub. It can be completed in hard copy or online  And there’s more to learn about Candace Baldwin and the Village to Village Network in the US here.

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