Members of the Ashby Village enjoy a holiday party in December. (Courtesy: Peter Sussman)
You couldn’t pay any of the 80-year-olds in this Pacific Heights living room to go to a senior center. About a dozen sit in a circle in armchairs, or shoulder to shoulder on the sofa, a thick book of plays in their laps.
"One, two, cha cha cha!" one woman reads, "Very good, cha cha cha!"
The group gathers once a month, rotating among each other's houses, to read plays together. Today, it’s Neil Simon’s “Come Blow Your Horn,” a comedy about a young man, bored living with his parents, who moves in with his older brother to find excitement.
"Answer phone, cha cha cha," the actor reads. "Hello? Snow? Don’t you know you could get arrested for having such a sexy voice?"
Everyone here is a member of the San Francisco Village -- a grass-roots group of local seniors from across the city, who banded together to support each other so they could stay home as they age.
Members help each other with things like grocery shopping, changing lightbulbs, giving rides to doctors’ appointments. A corps of volunteers is on hand to help with gardening, computer support and other chores. And a roster of local vendors offers a range of discounted services, like plumbing. But at the heart of the movement are the social activities.
"You know what I hear they played at 3 in the morning?" another actor reads from the script. "Strip Scrabble."
Throughout the year, there are holiday dinners, museum outings, yoga classes, hiking groups. Sarah Goldman started this play-reading group five years ago. For her, joining the village was really about meeting new people after she left her job.
"So the village came along at a time when I was looking to expand a friendship circle," she says.
It’s more than that, of course. Goldman is 87. The stairs in her apartment building seem to be getting steeper every year. She knows she can't stay forever.
"I do not want to move to a continuing care community," she says. "Nor would I have the funds to do so if I did."
Like many elderly people, Goldman isn't interested in living with her kids.
"My family is estranged from me, my biological family," she says. "I have difficult relationships. They’re across the country."
Goldman had hoped people in the village could help her identify somewhere else to live on her own. But in mid-September, she moved into a retirement community in San Francisco, one that can provide assisted living if she ever needs it. She says she's still part of the village and plans to continue with the play-reading group and other activities.
"I appreciate being able to have people that I can talk to," she says.
100 Villages and Growing
There are now more than 100 senior villages across the country, and another hundred in the works. But as the movement grows, it is starting to confront some growing pains, particularly around financial sustainability and diversity.
Ninety percent of village members are white and middle class. These demographics date back to the founders of the village movement: They didn't have the money to pay for full-time care to stay at home, but they had too much money to qualify for many government services. Most in-home programs are strictly for low-income folks.
"But there aren’t really services for seniors who are near poor, or who are middle income," says Carrie Graham, a medical sociologist at UC Berkeley who studies villages. "And a lot of services that are available to middle-income seniors are unaffordable."
Joining a village costs about $50 a month. Those membership fees fund the staff that administers the services and organizes volunteers who give rides and help with chores. But those fees may not be enough anymore. As members grow older, Graham says, village finances are getting strained.
"We hear villages saying older members might use more services, they might need more volunteers," she says.
New Funds Come with Strings Attached
So they’re looking for more money. In San Francisco, the village started hunting for grants from the city and foundations. But this money comes with strings attached. Funders want the white, middle-class movement to expand to more low-income and minority elders. This might be harder than it sounds.
At a recent happy hour for members of the Ashby Village in Berkeley, everyone was white. Executive Director Andy Gaines says the Berkeley group was started by former professors from the university. Diversifying beyond that circle has been really difficult.
News about Ashby Village "is very much passing word of mouth," Gaines says. "So it’s people who know people, and so the tendency is for it to stay within a smaller community."
Ashby Village tried to recruit more African-Americans from local churches. But they weren’t interested. Some organizers have observed that communities of color have a stronger emphasis on families caring for elders.
"There tends to be a stereotype of ethnic groups or immigrant groups being much more accepting of relying on their children. And in fact, expect to rely on their children in old age," says Graham. "It would make sense that they may not find a model of independent aging as attractive."
In general, Graham and Gaines have noticed a tendency toward racial and religious isolation in aging services.
"Especially as people are growing older, there is more kind of desire to stay like with like," Gaines says. "And less active movement towards reaching out to meet other populations."
Back at San Francisco Village, member Janey Norman thinks the focus on race is misplaced. She’s African-American. She says, for her, joining the village was never about meeting other people of color.
"Belonging to a village, it’s about human beings andsharing interests, and caring for each other and being there for each other," she says.
Norman is all for subsidizing membership fees so that low-income people can join the village. But the idea of funders pushing the movement to diversify racially offends her.
"It becomes a money thing. 'If we get more black people in here, if we get more Asians, we can get more money here,' " she says. "What is all of this? Why? Why?"
What Norman wants is friends to share a bottle of Louis Martini cabernet with. People to talk to about art and music. Folks who will look out for her if there’s an earthquake.
"It goes beyond color, OK," she says. "To me it’s not about color. It’s about connection with human beings."
New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America provided support for this story.