A group of baby boomers is spearheading a nationwide movement to allow adults to remain in their own homes until the end of their lives.
“Hell, no, we won’t go!”
That’s the answer I hear most often from seasoned baby boomers when I ask if they’re getting ready to move to retirement communities.
For starters, they don’t plan to retire before 70. And most want no part of the elder islands where their parents retreated from the hustle of city life into a largely sedentary, age-segregated existence.
The Village Movement is a popular alternative. The drivers of this movement are feisty professional women in their 50s and 60s who are determined to change the experience of aging by empowering and enabling adults to remain in their own homes or apartments to the end of their lives. The movement, launched eight years ago in Boston with Beacon Hill Village, has spread to Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and more than 50 other cities. Hundreds more are in formation.
Boomers now over 50 want to belong to communal families, networked into a virtual village. It’s partly a resurgence of the commune spirit of the 1960s and a throwback to the villages of a pre-urbanized America, where people looked out for one another through good times and bad.
Science tells us today that anyone who hopes to enjoy a happy, healthy later life needs to feel part of a larger group. Family members are not enough. We need to build new and diverse friendships with people younger and older than ourselves — relationships that are built on affection, not obligation.
Typically, the great majority of joiners in the Village Movement are women. “It’s the women who see the value of socialization,” says Bob Davis, the only male board member of the 9-month-old Ashby Village in Berkeley, Calif. “The men are happy in their workshops or reading or doing some solitary activity.” Beneath this common divergence among couples is the fact that the women anticipate becoming caregivers. The men expect to be cared for by their wives.
But fate turned the tables on Davis. After his wife, Merle, a retired social worker, had a hip replacement, he became the full-time caregiver. Davis eagerly joined Ashby Village last October and in November was told he needed his arthritic ankle replaced. “I was off my feet for six weeks,” he says. “We live in the Berkeley Hills, and neither of us could drive. We couldn’t have survived if our church didn’t bring all our meals. Now we’ll have the village.”
Laura Peck, a 61-year-old organizational consultant who works full time, was recruited into Ashby Village during a grocery store conversation. Her husband, Alan Stein, balked. Too young, he protested. He is 65. But Laura’s mother, Thelma, a majestically erect octogenarian who also works full time, eagerly bought in for the annual fee of $750. “As long as I don’t look in the mirror, I can be any age I want to be,” she says impishly.
Both women were intrigued by a self-governing membership organization that offers a one-stop number to call, like a concierge, to ask for the professional services they may need in the future. For now, Peck is young enough to join the cadre of volunteers who can chauffer, walk the dog, cook a casserole to share with a convalescent or throw a potluck and poetry supper at her home.
People’s reluctance to admit they are getting older is the greatest barrier to membership. “Great idea, but I’m not ready” is a common response. Don Langley, a member of San Francisco Village, bristles at this denial. “You don’t wait until your house is on fire before you get fire insurance.”
The appeal is even greater to the unpartnered. One out of three boomers over 50 is not married. Paul Axelrod recently moved from Washington state to Berkeley to pursue a romance. He is a retiree who still skis and can handle driving and chatting while thumbing his iPhone for directions — but after attending his 45th high school reunion, he’s not kidding himself anymore.
“I didn’t want to wait until I need assistance,” he says. “I want to be able to be a part of the village while I can contribute.”
Editor’s Note: Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today