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Creating Community as We Age... a Role for Philanthropy?

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I have a friend named Carol Hoopes -- she currently works at the Boston University School of Management but is planning in her next career to help others confront the issues of making an age-related transition. Carol has recruited a group of female baby boomer friends to be a "lab" to help her learn more about how women focus on the next stage of life productively, embracing one's past experience and the potential creativity of the next developmental stage.

Gone is the word "retirement" from our lexicons, replaced by words like "rebooting" and "re-wiring. Civic Ventures, a group that coined the term "encore careers", which counters the long-held image of hanging up one's spurs. Generally, from what I read and hear, there is a great interest in our latter stage of life. It's what Erik Ericson referred to as, the generative stage of development. That part of life when we are creating a legacy, mentoring the next generation--which sounded more like resting on our laurels, but now in comes a generation that is ready to give back, and march forward.

It's encouraging news that well-off women gather in dining rooms to discuss this, but is the concept being embraced by more diverse communities? And that is where the social justice role of philanthropy and widening the discussion so that low income, immigrant, people with disabilities, and communities of color can benefit. Replicating inequality in new institutions is doubling down on bad policy. We need our philanthropic organizations to be out front leading these movements so all on the economic spectrum stand to gain.

Most baby boomers will live longer, healthier lives regardless of income. Given this trend, will the built environment contribute or take away from our ability to remain in our communities? Will there be opportunities not only to "age-in-place" but to actually "age in community," as my colleague at the Heller School, Ann Bookman, has argued for in her research on grassroots organizations of elders who are leading the charge? Or are the more affluent headed off to assisted living facilities which are unaffordable for many leaving most elders behind?

And what about the people who can't afford assisted living, or who choose to live out lives in their own homes? Whether rich or poor, aging itself is a great leveler. Moving towards diverse "aging-friendly" communities - neighborhoods that can include people of varied economic, racial/ethnic and religious backgrounds - is within our reach.

I set out to do a mini explore of these issues, reading from what Carol has collected in her own right and her notes to self. At about the same time, I was invited to Judy Willett's home. Judy is the director of the Village movement, an effort that supports aging in community. She started was the founding Executive Director of Beacon Hill Village and now has moved on to direct a national network of villages as this model is taking hold in communities across the U.S.

The Village movement is a network of membership dues organizations, not affordable for every senior, but for many. My local village is called, Newton at Home. For an annual fee, services, volunteers and community resources are available without moving into a cloistered setting to avail one of those services. Whether it's a ride to the airport, someone to mow your lawn, trips into Boston cultural events, or someone to read to you, Newton at Home provides it through their wide volunteer network, or refers their members to a list of vetted vendors who show up to do home repair or fix a computer on a fee for service basis. These services connect local people who have something to offer with those who may be shut in, recuperating from a hospital stay, or just lonely and in need of social connection. People, who need services of one kind, also provide other services of other kinds to others, so one doesn't always have to be on the receiving end.

Even attending the meeting felt like a strategy to strengthen community, as many of us knew each other from years of residing in Newton. And that's the point: we want to stay in our communities because we know people there and we have variety of social connections and knowledge of town resources. In this case, familiarity breeds content.

So are foundations ready to embrace these efforts? Has the Village movement and other community- based efforts that include less affluent elders come into the common vernacular? Is community-building and making a transition within that community being taken seriously?

This is the teaching I have received from Carol-- that helping people through their transitions and building community is a vital part of expanding this movement on the ground. And, from a social justice lens, making it as inclusive as possible. The question is, will these efforts find some common ground, and will they garner the kind of philanthropic support they need to grow and become sustainable even as the demographic tsunami hits??

Even scratching the surface, there are some encouraging signs that philanthropy is coming to the table and that community building is an integral part of the strategy.

Grantmakers in Aging has partnered with the Pfizer Foundation to launch an initiative to help different communities including groups in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri. With $150,000 plus matching funds communities will add, experiments with workforce options, environmental adjustments, transportation improvements and other issues of concern are occurring. And interestingly enough, part of the $1.3 million initiative includes getting the word out about the experience of these five areas in the hopes of inspiring other funders to make grants tailored to additional communities so the concept can grow to scale.

Another interesting example is from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Their efforts support residents to become leaders of neighborhood change and they support seniors and other vulnerable populations. They used the models including the Village model and NORCS (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities) that serve mainly low-income seniors, as they implement leadership training and build capacity in Detroit and Grosse Pointe. Community Foundations are the perfect vehicle for expressing and leading interest in this area as people my age tip the demographic scale.

As an aging baby boomer looking forward to the next stage, I hope we all learn more about these community developments. And that they apply equally to all elders in our society wherever they are along the economic or ability spectrum.

Having people like Carol, Ann and Judy apply their talents - and stimulating the interest of many others with power, influence and wisdom who care about this transition of historic proportions is a reason to be encouraged. Foundations stepping to the plate on this issue can truly leave make sure no elder is left behind.