It Sometimes Takes a 'Village' to Keep Seniors in Their Homes

Friday, December 12, 2014

If anyone has a handle on the ever-growing Village Movement, aimed at helping older adults to age in their homes and neighborhoods, it's my neighbor Janis Brewer.

Brewer, a management consultant specializing in non-profit agencies, has aided a slew of villages who hire her independently. These range from the Ashby and North Oakland Villages, which serve Rockridge, to locations in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Petaluma, even two in Arizona. (See overview of the Village Movement on page 7.)

"I do love the Village Movement," Brewer says as we drink tea on her sunny front porch. "It's grassroots; it's consumer driven." Statistics, she says, show that 85 percent of this age group want to stay in their homes. "They don't want to only hang around with a bunch of old people."

It takes about three years and a lot of energy to start a village, Brewer says. Usually the founding members are in their 60s, and many were active in one or more of the movements of the Sixties and Seventies. "They say: 'I was in the first movement; now I want to be in the next.'"

Brewer was there from the start of Ashby Village, officially opened in 2010, and counting 38 Rockridge residents among its more than 300 members. As interim executive director, she set up the village's operations and helped the board hire full-time executive director Andy Gaines. Rockridge resident Gaines lives a bike ride away from the group's offices on Durant in Berkeley.

"I never knew my grandparents," Gaines says as we sit with Rockridge residents Alison Colgan, Charlotte Herzfeld and Ella Hirst at the Kales Avenue home of board member Roberta Pressman. "I've always loved older people."

Now Gaines' children, ages 5 and 2, who he brings to Ashby Village social gatherings, "have 300 grandparents," says Pressman, a psychologist by training, who coordinates the members' support team.

"I was looking to meet people and get involved," she says, echoing what I heard from the others. Herzfeld found the village "a good fit" that would let her utilize her social work background.

The four are part of Outlandish, one of Ashby Village's five neighborhood groups who regularly meet in each other's homes. "As we grew, there was less of a sense of intimacy," Gaines says. "So we initiated a neighborhood concept."
Outlandish tends toward monthly potluck lunches and dinners. Other groups meet over jigsaw puzzles or handiwork. They come together at Ashby Village Happy Hours and at holiday parties where rides are provided and the building is wheelchair accessible.

When each joined, she participated socially and volunteered, whether it was to introduce a new member to the organization, drive someone to an appointment or contact the family of a member in distress. "You change roles from time to time," Colgan, a retired administrative law judge, says, "like Ella."

"I was invited to a living room chat," Hirst, a retired librarian, explains. That's where Gaines and several board members introduce the Village concept to prospective members and/or volunteers, as they will from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, December 14, in the Rockridge area. (To register, call 510/204-9200 or go to

Impressed, Hirst immediately decided: "I want to work with people like this. I started volunteering. I loved the nature walks," one of a full calendar of Ashby Village activities. But a year ago, she had a serious fall which required knee replacement. "I was home-bound."

That's when the support side of the village movement kicked in. "Alison stayed overnight," Hirst says. Another volunteer, an early riser, brought her breakfast those first mornings. Someone was always available for a ride. "People were so responsive. I was stunned." Indeed, Ashby Village is bolstered by 250 volunteers, just 40 percent of whom are members.

Neighboring North Oakland Village (NOV), opened in 2011, functions without a paid executive director. Its 55 members include six from Rockridge. "I always said I want to stay in my house 'til they carry me out," says Judith Coates, a village founder. "It's pure selfishness on my part," board president Sandra Coleman adds. "I want this to be available when I need it."

Rockridge is where Ashby and NOV overlap. "Whenever someone calls from an area for which they would also be eligible for North Oakland, they are invited to join," Gaines says, "but also encouraged to check out NOV to determine what feels right to them."

"We are the only village located in Oakland," Coates says. Forced out of the Rockridge Shopping Center due to the upcoming renovation, they moved to less visible digs in the First Congregational Church on Harrison at 27th Street.

Now they are more dependent on word of mouth and notices in church and Rotary Club bulletins to attract members and volunteers. "Our members tell their friends. When the villages started, we focused on service. But it's really become community," Coates says.

Members can participate in a weekly walking group, Monday mending where Coleman offers her sewing skills to those who may be unable to sew on a button or take up a hem, and monthly potlucks and holiday parties.

"Our self-appointed task is to be in touch with our members to make sure they are getting what they need," Coleman says. "People often find it difficult to ask for help even though they are paying for it. It is so rewarding and people are so appreciative."

Giving members rides is a primary function. "Not only do we drive you to the doctor, but we go in when needed," Coleman says. On a lighter note, she reports: "Older women would rather die than not have their hair done."

New Rockridge resident Larry Hannah saw a piece on NOV on a blog. "I saw that one of the things they did was to drive people to the doctor," he says.

Although the retired Cal State teacher-educator moved here to be near family, "I want to be independent," he says. So he's "paying ahead" by volunteering now so that if he can't drive himself, this village will be there for him.

An Overview of the Village Movement

  • WHAT: An innovative, consumer-driven, self-governing model designed to support older adults who want to age on their own terms in their own homes and communities.
  • WHERE: 140 operating villages in 41 states with 120 more in development, according to Village to Village Network (
  • WHEN: Begun in 2001 by a group of seniors living in the Beacon Hill section of Boston to help one another stay in their neighborhood as long as possible.
  • SERVICES: Many use a tiered service delivery model to address the needs of their members, according to a report published by the Rutgers School of Social Work. This may include some services provided by paid staff, some through volunteers who may or may not be members, and some by external providers who are usually vetted by and sometimes discounted for village members.
  • SOCIAL: Since isolation is as much an issue as the need for transportation and household-based services, villages also focus on social engagement, community building, discussion groups and involving members in governance.
  • FUNDING: The largest funding source is membership fees aided by fundraising, individual gifts and grants from private foundations, corporations and government. Annual membership costs vary from $25 to $948 per individual and $50 to $1,285 per household, depending on the village, with some discounted memberships for those who have financial need.
  • LOCAL: * Ashby Village encompasses Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Kensington, El Cerrito and Rockridge. Annual dues are $750 for an individual, $1,200 for a household. Its offices are at 2330 Durant Avenue, Berkeley. More information is available at 510/204-9200 or * North Oakland Village boundaries generally encompass north and central Oakland, including Rockridge. Annual dues are $600 for an individual, $750 for a household. Offices are in Oakland's First Congregational Church, 2501 Harrison at 27th Street. More information: 510/547-8500 or