For the rural elderly, it can take a village
Editor's Note: Montana is the oldest state west of the Mississippi, and demographic projections show the state growing collectively older as more Montanans enter their senior years. The economic, cultural, and personal impacts of that trend present the state and its residents with new challenges and, with those challenges, opportunities. Graying Pains is a series of weekly stories and broadcasts exploring those challenges and opportunities in communities statewide. By investigating how other communities have responed to the issues raised by aging, Graying Pains hopes to point the way toward policie and innovations that can help Montana, and Montanans, improve with age. The series is produced by the Montana Fourth Estate Project, a collaboration among 13 Montana newsrooms and the University of Montana School of Journalism under the auspices of the Montana Newspaper Association and the Solutions Journalism Network. See montanafourthestate.org for the collected Graying Pains stories and more information.
It looked like a lot of senior gatherings: a chatty group of folks, mostly in their 70s and 80s, with friends and family in a church basement, dining on quiche, pastries, fresh fruit, and other goodies. There was plenty of laughter, and a strong sense of camaraderie.
But there was something special happening on a January morning at Kalispell’s First Presbyterian Church. This was a celebration by volunteers and members of the recently launched My Glacier Village, Montana’s first and only chapter in the national Village to Village Network.
“To me, it’s been a godsend,” said Carolyn O’Mara, a member. “It’s really helped me stay independent. And I’ve made a lot of friends.” Grace Larson, an author and great-grandmother who, among other volunteer activities, drives O’Mara to medical appointments, said My Glacier Village helps “keep all of us old people active and independent.”
The “village” phenomenon, which began in Boston in 2002, is anchored in a simple yet radical notion: local groups, designed and organized largely or entirely by seniors, can provide shared services that help people age where and how they like, connected to a community of caring peers with the support they need to navigate healthy and happy lives.
The Village to Village Network, a nonprofit umbrella group established a decade ago to support and spread the concept, now claims more than 250 affiliated villages in operation across the U.S., and reports that another 80 are in development. Those local groups, which pay membership fees to the network, serve an estimated 40,000 elderly members with transportation, social and recreational activities, light home chores, and other offerings, depending on the needs of the community. Most tasks are handled by volunteers, though some villages also offer access to vetted professional services.
There’s limited research that suggests the village concept is broadly effective. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have been studying villages in California and nationally since 2012. They’ve found that after a year’s membership, village participants are more likely to report feeling confident that they can stay in their homes as they age, to feel a greater sense of social connectedness, and to say they know how to find necessary assistance.
But here’s the problem: most villages are located in cities or suburbs with dense populations and well-developed senior support networks. (The original Boston Village is anchored in that city’s wealthy Beacon Hill neighborhood.) Few have been launched in rural communities, and fewer still in low- or moderate-income areas. “There aren’t many of us,” said Kathy Geiersbach, treasurer of Lamoille Neighbors, a village location in Hyde Park, Vermont, population 490.
That’s why My Glacier Village, with its 22 members — each of whom pays $30 per month — and 26 volunteers, represents an intriguing experiment for Montana. Kalispell itself isn’t as rural as much of the state, but Flathead County confronts typical obstacles to well-being for the elderly. People, many with limited income, live far apart, and there’s not much existing infrastructure for transportation and other aging services.
“It’s been hard, a challenge,” said Jenn Prunty, a former Kalispell construction and real estate professional who co-founded My Glacier Village in October 2018 after struggling to help her father care for her elderly mother in California. “But it’s bigger than I could have ever imagined, and it’s just getting started.”
As My Glacier Village takes form — it’s just now applying for tax-exempt status as a nonprofit — Prunty can look to models such as Nauset Neighbors in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. When Dick Elkin, his wife, and six others started eyeing the village model in 2010, they knew that Cape residents, with an annual median income of just $40,000, couldn’t afford the paid-staff design they had read about in Beacon Hill, which required membership dues of $400 to $800 a year. Instead, Elkin said, “we figured out how to do it by running an all-volunteer organization.”
Elkin and his friends kicked in $2,500 for a starting budget, which they used to print brochures, purchase software, and pay legal expenses. They used fees from their first 40 members ($75 a year, but waived for those who have trouble paying) to cover insurance premiums. Then they built awareness by holding informational meetings at local libraries and senior centers, and by marketing to “email lists from every organization we knew of.”
That bare-bones approach is typical for smaller villages in rural communities, said Barbara Hughes Sullivan, national director of the Village to Village Network. “Rural areas are more volunteer-based. But it does take that core group to bring things together, a group of really invested people to put work and money into it. I always tell people [who are thinking about starting a new village], ‘find more people.’”
Elkin said that 70% of Nauset Neighbors’ services involve transportation. Municipal and regional bus services work well for some Cape Cod towns, but buses can’t get residents of Hyannis to the nearest hospital, 30 miles away. Volunteers also drive members to do grocery shopping and other errands, or to activities at senior centers. Members, whose median age is 88, call Nauset Neighbors with their requests; a volunteer coordinator enters the listing into the Village to Village web application, where volunteers can log in and see what tasks are available. Elkin said the organization’s 300 volunteers — most of them retirees themselves — provide 3,500 to 4,000 services a year to 450 members.
In Colorado’s Berthoud, a rural town north of Denver, and Roaring Fork Valley, nestled amid the mountains near Aspen, the village concept has taken somewhat different form. Villages in those communities are coordinated by A Little Help, a Denver-based nonprofit that relies on local and regional philanthropic support for most of its budget. Dues are intentionally kept low, with members paying what they can starting at $75 a year. And while transportation, as in Cape Cod, is a core offering, other services are tailored to local needs.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, for example, “a lot of people don’t have access to fresh cooked meals,” said Hillary Lenz, A Little Help’s executive director. So A Little Help taps Meals on Wheels to prepare food that its volunteers deliver to members across the area’s remote, often mountainous terrain. “The beauty of the model,” Lenz said, “is that we are using neighbors, so you don’t need a whole fleet of vehicles, you just need to equip people who are already there. We find that volunteers will go the extra miles, because they know that services out there are fewer and farther between.”
In Paonia, Colorado, farther to the west, volunteers perform light household jobs that seniors otherwise find hard to get done, like changing porch lights or unsticking outside doors. “Stuff like that that helps people stay in their own homes,” said Linda McCone, program manager at Paonia’s North Fork Senior Connections, another Village to Village affiliate. More experienced volunteers know how to use those small interventions as opportunities to look out for greater needs that health care or social services professionals might address.
But the most important service volunteers provide may be less tangible. It’s about just showing up, interacting, and demonstrating concern. In rural areas, often separated from their closest neighbors by long distances, the elderly can become especially isolated, and their sense of pride and self-reliance can make it hard for many to ask for help. “A lot of people don’t have strong connections left,” said Lenz. “So knowing a neighbor cares enough to come over and say hello is important.” A Little Help volunteers provide “care calls” — once-a-week phone check-ins with members — just to chat.
Cecilia Bessette, 78, loves those calls. After her husband died last July, she contacted A Little Help, and within a week, a crew of volunteers had arrived to clear her gutters and do yard work. They’ve come back to clear her sidewalk and backyard after snows. Those services, plus an occasional light bulb change, will help her stay in her rural Berthoud house for, she said, “as long as possible.” But the phone check-ins, Bessette said, tell her this isn’t just about maintenance. “They do care about me.”
That’s the opportunity Prunty sees in Kalispell. She’s trying to build out a suite of offerings — including book chats, walks, even archery lessons — that bring aging people together for inspiration and support.
“No one wants to admit we’re aging, and there’s this stigma about asking for help. People say, ‘We don’t need any help,’ but then they admit their smoke alarm battery has been going off” since they moved in. (My Glacier Village’s volunteers can help with that.) “These people need connection. The home logistics, I realized, was almost nothing compared to connection and being able to call someone without feeling it’s a burden.”