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City tackles impending senior boom with neighborly 'senior villages'

Edna Small, 83, works with the Glover Park Senior Village, one of ten organizations in the city dedicated to organizing services for senior citizens in the city

Ninety-two-year-old Irene Stoess hangs up her coat before the Glover Park Senior Village's Conversation Corner, where she can speak her native German with fellow seniors

In addition to language socials, the Village offers creative writing, computer classes, a book club, as well as transportation, odd jobs and more to seniors living nearby

Lynn Schrite, Marsha Goldberg and Mary Elizabeth Pate practice French during "Conversation Corner"

Learning French

With baby boomers reaching retirement, D.C. is trying to keep up with the booming population by encouraging the development of senior villages, or networks, to help seniors stay independent and in their own homes. 
D.C. is growing in many directions—with a budding restaurant scene and a growing hipster population. But as the city increases development through efforts such as a new streetcar system and new housing complexes citywide, there’s also a focus on improving the city for seniors.
“As a city, we want to cater to the needs of many people,” says John Thompson, Ph.D., executive director of the D.C. Office on Aging (DCOA). “We want to keep seniors in the city and not move to other jurisdictions.”
In 2010, residents aged 50 and older were 28% of D.C.’s population, according to U.S. Census data. And by 2050, the number of seniors nationwide could nearly double with D.C.’s over-60 population projected to reach 129,000 by 2030—a 20% increase from 2012, according to DCOA data. That’s why the city joined the World Health Organization's “Age-Friendly Cities” movement, pledging to make the city suitable for all ages. For example, making sure there is adequate time for a senior to cross the street and putting grocery stores or shopping hubs in every neighborhood, such as the new Giant on O St. in Shaw, says Harriet Tregoning, former director of D.C.'s Office of Planning, who conducted this interview when she was still the agency's head. According to the DCOA's Strategic Plan for 2013 to 2017, making the city a desirable place for seniors requires focusing on eight broad domains. These include safe and affordable transit, opportunities for civic engagement, jobs, and the ability to stay in one’s home.
“Just in terms of demographics and age in our country, there needs to be a way for people to live where they want to live and not end up unnecessarily in nursing homes,” says Edna Small, 83, a former clinical psychologist who has lived in her home for over 40 years.
Catching up with the senior boom
With the senior population in D.C. growing—about 75,000 as head-of-household in the Washington metro—there's a gap that needs to be filled.
That’s where senior villages come in. The villages are not villages at all, but coordinated networks that link nonprofits, local businesses and volunteers with seniors in a particular neighborhood, and are an integral part of D.C.’s plan to become an “Age-Friendly City.”
 “There are a multitude of things seniors need beyond physical assistance,” says Terrie Williams, co-executive director for In Step Seniors, Inc., a non-profit group that aims to help senior citizens live productive lives through counseling, lifestyle workshops and health and wellness screenings. Williams and her co-director Valerie Smith are also starting a village east of the river, in Deanwood.
Sometimes “they just want to get out” or may just need someone to call and talk to them or check in “to break the pattern of isolation,” she says.
Yet, “you want to keep seniors in their homes independently for as long as possible,” says Valerie Smith, In Step Seniors’ co-executive director. “They thrive when they’re in their own environment.”
The city has 10 villages operating in various neighborhoods— Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Kalorama, Palisades and Dupont to name a few— and is actively adding more.
“We have the demographic for [more senior villages],” Tregoning says. “People have called Washington, D.C., a naturally occurring retirement community. We have a relatively walk-able city, great transit, lots of neighborhoods with grocery stores and restaurants in walking distance.”
DCOA eventually wants a village in every neighborhood. “They take a life of their own. One's needs may be transportation, another may be to help seniors to use the computer or filing the taxes,” Thompson says. The key is “being able to bring the supply and volunteer resources, and meshing them with the demand of the service,” he adds.
Villages built to fit community needs
Each village is different. “When the villages first started, there was a saying, ‘when you’ve seen one village, you’ve seen one village’ —they’re all so different," says Small, the retired psychologist, who now interviews new volunteers and takes part in administrative meetings for the Glover Park Village, which serves seniors in Glover Park, Cathedral Heights, and along Massachusetts and New Mexico Avenues.
The volunteer-based, donation-run Glover Park Village started in 2011 and has grown to serve almost 100 seniors, with some doubling as volunteers.
The village offers services such as transportation, social visits and odd jobs. A senior who has trouble bending over might need a bookcase moved or some yard work done. Small had a student volunteer move her computer and hook it back up.
The goal, says Glover Park Village president Patricia Clark, is “helping them maintain their independence by being interdependent with us.”
When Small’s partner, 85 year-old Mel Kohn, came to live with her, Glover Park village volunteers took him to weekly speech therapy appointments following while recovering from a stroke. “When he was first out of the hospital and I wasn’t available all of the time, the village stepped in,” she says.
Small says Kohn, a recently retired sociology professor, loves the village too. “I sometimes say that’s why he moved in with me,” Small chuckles.
Glover Park also holds regular social events to keep members active, whether it's gathering for a cup of tea or book club or taking a field trip to the zoo.
“A couple times a month we get together for a meal, just to see people that you don’t ordinarily run into,” Small says. Some of the group goes in early to watch a movie on Fridays, but Small says she usually misses the movie and opts to socialize with the group after her afternoon nap.
But the village is more than socialization and yard work. Some of Glover Park Village’s members have been in rent-controlled apartments for decades, some of which may not have an elevator or other accommodations, and can’t afford to move because of the current housing market, Clark says. They’re essentially stuck, so the village connections make it easier for them to live by fulfilling simple tasks, such as moving furniture or assistance with groceries.
“We’re trying to find ways to meet the needs of frailer people, who are hidden,” Small says. “It’s a question of getting into buildings and letting people know that we’re available.”
Expanding to underserved neighborhoods
Most of the senior villages in place now are in more affluent parts of the city—the Palisades, Pennsylvania Avenue, Foggy Bottom— so Smith and Williams, the In Step Seniors directors, decided to change that.
The duo, who work closely with DCOA and the Glover Park village, started conceptualizing a senior village in Deanwood this past summer and are currently looking for a home office, “which may be a church,” Smith says.
Deanwood would be one of the first in D.C. to target an underserved area. “There are a lot of seniors who aren’t aware of the services out there to help them that they can take advantage of,” Smith says. The village will bring people together, “once isolated seniors will be able to link up with others.”
“You have seniors that are caring for younger children and they don’t know that there are services that can help with that, Smith says.
The goal for the first year is to get up to 25 participants and then gradually expand to serve the more the 400 seniors in the area, says Williams.
Once the Deanwood village is up and running, Williams and Smith want to expand to other neighboring communities including Eastland Gardens, which is adjacent Deanwood in Northeast.
“This will be their village, and [the seniors] will have a big say in what they want and how they want it run,” Smith says.
After they get settled, Smith and Williams will have a community meeting to assess the needs of Deanwood’s 55-and-up residents. Then they will recruit volunteers, start fundraising and forge partnerships with local businesses to provide services such as twice-monthly light cleaning, snow removal and lawn mowing. 
“You’re dealing with seniors so there has to be a level of trust. They have to trust you—that you will do what you say will,” Smith says.
Then Smith says, “If you’re blessed, one day, you’ll be a senior and you may need an organization like ours.”
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