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Seniors in Philly are Aging in Place with the Help of Community ‘Villages’

By Nora Macaluso, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“I really like to think of it as seniors helping seniors,” one member said. Services range from social hours to help setting up a computer to a ride to a doctor’s office.

The men’s group of Penn’s Village meets regularly for “a free-ranging conversation” about public and private topics, says Peter Schoenbach, “like a group of friends, which, in fact, we really are.”
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Like many people, Anne Tobey and her husband, Peter Schoenbach, wanted to spend their retirement years in a diverse neighborhood with easy access to arts and cultural attractions. But when they moved to Center City 14 years ago from Buffalo, they didn’t know many people in the area.

They’ve since joined Penn’s Village, a largely volunteer group that coordinates help and social engagement for members. “It’s a support system,” executive director Jane Eleey said.

“I’m a city person,” Tobey said. The group “is a particularly valuable thing for those of us who want to age in place in an urban environment.”

Most Americans want to stay in their own homes as they age. Almost 80% of people 50 and over in a 2018 AARP survey said they wanted to stay in their communities as long as possible, but only 46% thought they’d be able to stay in their current homes.

“I’m a city person,” says Anne Tobey, here with her husband, Peter Schoenbach. Penn’s Village “is a particularly valuable thing for those of us who want to age in place in an urban environment.”
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Where someone lives has a huge effect on aging. Studies show that older people who are physically and mentally active tend to live longer, and civic involvement plays a large role in that.

As a result, organizations are stepping in to help people stay connected. Grassroots, neighborhood-level groups, nonprofit organizations, government-backed partnerships, and communities designed for aging in place can provide everything from companionship and tech support to transportation and home repairs. Most people in the AARP survey said they’d be interested in joining an organization and be willing to pay an annual fee.

A network of villages

Penn’s Village in Philadelphia is part of a national network of hundreds of “villages” designed to help older adults age in place. Philadelphia has three.

“A lot of people move into central Philadelphia from the suburbs” and are drawn to the group as a way to meet like-minded companions, Eleey said.

Penn’s Village has about 350 members within its boundaries, which run river to river and include neighborhoods from Fairmount on the northern border to Grays Ferry in the south. It has a small staff, and is funded by dues, fund-raising, and occasional grants.

It’s a model likely to gain favor as the population ages. About 14% of the 1.58 million people living in Philadelphia County in 2019 were 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A 2016 Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia report projected that older adults would make up 22% of the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware area by 2030, up from 15% in 2010.

“The community is so important,” said Marianne Waller, a writer and retired pharmacy advertising copywriter and Penn’s Village member. “As you retire, your whole life focus changes, because you aren’t up and out at eight in the morning and around people all day. You have to figure out how to structure your life now.”

The system works well for those who don’t want to rely on friends or family for help. “I really like to think of it as seniors helping seniors,” Waller said. “How great is it to not have to ask a friend? With friends, you always feel like you’re calling in favors.”[/vc_column_text]

“We do a broad range of services, but only things neighbors would do for each other,” says Penn Village executive director Jane Eleey.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Eleey noted that “it often brings a sense of relief to the children of older adults” to know their parents have a support system. “It gives people a sense of reassurance about their ability to stay in their own home.”

Pre-pandemic, groups met in members’ homes or in a church. Some groups had begun returning to in-person meetings, while others were continuing on Zoom, Eleey said. In response to the latest federal and city guidance, Penn’s Village is requiring all in-person activities to be held outdoors, with vaccination required and masks in place, except while eating or drinking.

When the pandemic hit, “Penn’s Village was remarkably agile in moving to online programming,” Tobey said. Contrary to the stereotype about older people being slow to learn technology, “people were on Zoom right away,” she said. “They really missed not a trick.”

One long-running group is the men’s group, which has no agenda, Schoenbach said. “It’s a free-ranging conversation” about public and private topics, “like a group of friends, which, in fact, we really are.”

Retired professionals offer skills

Penn’s Village has three levels of membership, with annual dues ranging from $200 to $600 a household. The lower level offers access to programs and social events; the highest level gives access to services.

“We do a broad range of services, but only things neighbors would do for each other,” Eleey said. There’s no “hands-on care” — volunteers won’t bathe people daily, for example — but members can get help setting up a new computer or finding a ride to an appointment.

“Penn’s Village, because of where we’re located, does have a lot of retired professionals,” she said. That’s an opportunity for people to use their skills in a volunteer capacity.

For example, the Health Pals program pairs volunteers with members who want someone to accompany them to medical appointments, taking notes and asking questions as needed. Some Health Pals are retired medical professionals, Eleey said.

“Health Pal'” Margo Villanova (left) assists Penn Village member Joan Dill as part of the group’s support system.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Penn’s Village has benefits that may not be obvious at first, members say. The group “provides a comfortable place to discuss the uncomfortable,” Tobey said. “We’re all aging. We’re all facing the end of life, and there are programs that address that directly.” Those include everything from how to declutter to help with addressing fiscal and legal issues such as getting documentation in place for survivors. “We’ve even drafted our obituaries and prepaid cremation,” she said.

Center City is a diverse area, and residents like that. “We have three children under 6 next door,” Tobey said. “I love being in a mixed community like this, and I don’t want to give that up.”

Penn’s Village, however, is fairly racially homogeneous. The group is hoping a recent outreach grant from the Independence Foundation will help attract a more diverse membership, board chair Kristin Davidson said.

Before the pandemic, “we had been trying, unsuccessfully, to reach out to the minority communities, communities of color, in particular,” Eleey said. “While we do have some members and some volunteers who are not white, most of us are, and we’re not happy with it.”

Naturally occurring retirement communities

Other models of organizing support for aging in place range from informal networks set up through neighborhood associations to so-called NORCs — naturally occurring retirement communities.

NORCs are operated through public-private partnerships in neighborhoods with large populations of older adults. They receive public funding and tend to be more focused on services than on social programs. The NORC aims to help people stay safe and independent as they age.

The NORC@JFCS, operated by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Philadelphia, serves a six-zip code area in Northeast Philadelphia, home to more than 65,000 older adults, the group says. Residents don’t have to be Jewish to join.

“As people begin to age, they realize they maybe need a little bit more help than they did 10 years ago,” said Brenda Edelman, assistant director older adults, individual and family services, at the NORC@JFCS.

Many members have lived in their homes for 30 or 40 years and don’t want to move, she said. “Safety’s a big issue when you live in your home alone,” she said.

A “care manager” will do an initial “soup-to-nuts” assessment to determine how well a member is functioning and acquaint them with available public benefits and property maintenance options, Edelman said. Those deemed in need of additional services will be referred to local organizations that can help, she said. NORC staff will also perform light home repairs and connect members with vetted vendors for extensive work, she said.

The NORC@JFCS is open to adults 60 and older living in any of the group’s six zip codes (19111, 19114, 19115, 19116, 19149 and 19152). Dues are $50 a year for a single person and $80 for a household.

Penn’s Village in Center City, a largely volunteer group of people helping one another in a coordinated way, offers regular social events, such as the men’s group.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Not all aging-in-place models rely on dues, or even on a central organization. Some are very small, maybe even a single apartment building.

The Bloomingdale Aging in Place community on New York’s Upper West Side began when a pair of block associations got together to pool resources and organize activities and services. The group has no membership fee and is open to any adult living within its boundaries.

To be successful, these organizations need dedicated volunteers, as well as a network to reach out to potential members.

Bloomingdale and Penn’s Village are both in areas with large populations of retired professionals eager to use their skills to get databases up and running, sort out legal issues, and take on other tasks to get a group growing. Other start-ups may need more help.

“You need a core group of really committed people to get the ball rolling,” Eleey said. And “once you get it going, you’ve got to sustain interest and make it something people feel is a going concern, that it’s not going to disappear.”

Some initial considerations, Eleey said, are deciding on a group’s boundaries, securing insurance, and setting up a database with someone who knows how to maintain it.

“You need a little bit of a budget, I think, but you could start with nothing and see where you go,” she said.