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Why It Takes a Virtual Village

A new type of membership organization connects older people to each other and to the resources they need to lead independent lives. But the benefits extend beyond the organizations’ members.

Disrupt aging Virtual Villages houses

Illustrations by Xavi Garcia

Making cities more approachable

These grassroots nonprofits are called virtual villages, but there’s very little that’s virtual about them. They’re springing up around the country to help seniors connect with others and stay in their homes as they age. For a monthly or annual fee, members gain access to organized events, an Angie’s-like list of vetted vendors and volunteers who do everything from driving them to doctor’s appointments or the grocery store to hanging artwork and changing light bulbs. Although some communication takes place over email, advice about resources is typically just a phone call, not an online request form, away.

The first virtual village, Beacon Hill Village in Boston, was founded in 1999. Today there are 190 such groups nationwide. The average annual fees are $450 for individuals and $600 for households. Compared with the average price of a one-bedroom unit in an assisted-living facility — $42,000 a year — that’s a minimal expense, and a small price to pay for continued independence.

To get an in-depth understanding of how a virtual village works, we reached out to Kate Hoepke, the executive director of 350-member San Francisco Village. She talked with us about the rewards of building relationships, facing the aging process and getting involved with a village at any age.

What is San Francisco Village, and how does it operate?

We’re a membership organization that supports older adults who want to stay in charge of their lives as they age, who want to stay in their own homes and neighborhoods, who feel the need for community and connection. San Francisco Village takes great pride in the fact that we help our members navigate the transitions of getting older. I think that it’s uncharted territory for a lot of people. They may not know about the resources that are available to them. They may not know the right person to talk to, or even the right questions to ask.

What’s the form for conveying all of this information?

Relationships. We have about 15 social events every month — ways for people to come to a class, or meet with their neighbors to watch a movie together, or go to an outside event in the city. There are all kinds of opportunities for interaction.

Members engage with us. They build new relationships with others. They develop trust in us and in each other. Then when something happens — they get a diagnosis, or experience a crisis, large or small — they have a close enough relationship with us that they can pick up the phone and call on us to help them navigate that situation.

Is there also an online component?

All virtual villages have websites. Some of us have interactive forms on our websites. I would say, though, that that is not the way our members build community. The term “virtual village” is a little misleading because it connotes that we’re doing this online, and we’re not. Again, the primary conduit is trusted relationships. There’s an awful lot about the face-to-face relationship that just cannot be replaced by anything.

What are some examples of how you help members manage the transition of getting older?

Say that a member has received a diagnosis around cognitive impairment, and he or she doesn’t know about neuropsychologists or geriatric care managers. There’s a whole world of professionals who can help develop a care plan or support a family caregiver. We try to put the member in touch with the resources that are going to help them.

One of our members who is in her mid-80s, and pretty strong and independent, said to me, “I am in considerable denial about my own future. What you can do for me is don’t protect me from the truth. Present things to me. Stimulate my thinking. Get me to come to one of these presentations about end-of-life planning. Get me to think about retirement community options in case I need that in the future, or just the whole notion of care. Who’s going to care for me in the future, and how am I going to pay for it?”

Do you compile a list of trusted outlets that can perform various services?

Absolutely. We call it a preferred provider network. Somebody calls and says, “I’m not able to prepare meals for myself. Could you get me in touch with someone who will do home-delivered meals?” Or, “Can you please put me in touch with an estate attorney?” We connect people with trusted, checked-out professional providers.

What are the membership dues?

Fifty dollars a month for an individual and $62.50 for a household. We also offer scholarship funds — about 14 percent of our membership is scholarship.

How do you keep the costs down?

We’re a lean machine. We do a really good job of using volunteers. We have about 140 nonmember volunteers of all ages. We have a volunteer manager who recruits and trains them. But what makes it work is the inspiration our volunteers feel. They want to make a contribution to their community. A lot of people are interested in a sort of collective well-being, and there aren’t a lot of places to express that.

What are the challenges of sustaining a village?

It surprises me that our membership isn’t much larger than it is. We need to figure out how to break through that barrier. It’s just raising consciousness around people being OK with getting older and being proactive about it.

Another challenge is the cultural barrier to asking for help. We’ve asked our members why it’s so difficult to ask for help. People have told us, “I was raised that way. If I ask for help, it means I'm weak.” For older people, they think it might be a slippery slope: If I acknowledge that I can’t do something, what’s next?

Do you have any advice for people who are hoping to start an organization like this in their community?

Do it. It is so worthwhile. The power that’s available to us in the community when people come together is tangible. It’s such a wonderful thing