On Our First Birthday
by Elaine Hooker Jackson
Five years ago, longtime Berkeley neighbors and friends Pat Sussman and Shirley Haberfeld read an article about Beacon Hill Village in Boston, and the idea resonated. Their mutual enthusiasm led to numerous sidewalk conversations and ultimately culminated in the founding of Ashby Village.
The issue that captivated them was summed up in another context by Geoff Hoyle in his popular one-man show, "Geezer": "Who will take care of us besides us?"
The Beacon Hill model - creating a community organization to enable members to remain in their homes as they age - has spawned more than 50 such villages across the country. Hundreds of similar organizations, from villages to "naturally occurring retirement communities," are in various stages of development, and the villages now actively share ideas and strategies.
This month, Ashby Village celebrates its first year of full operation, and by all measures it's wildly successful: a 95 percent renewal rate, higher than Beacon Hill's; double the number of members it had at launch, making it one of the fastest-growing villages in the country; a 70 percent return rate on a member survey; and most important, satisfied members who count on being one phone call away from getting help. That help could take many forms, some of them not yet articulated. A few of the more frequent requests have been for a ride to the doctor's office, a handyman's skilled assistance, a dinner delivered during a health crisis.
Members also say they join for the social events and personal connections.
Susan McWhinney-Morse, one of Beacon Hill Village's founders, has said, "I often think that what gets older people down about living in their own homes are the little things. ... Who's going to change the light bulb on top of my stairwell? Who's going to fix the leaky faucet?"
Pat and Shirley get teary-eyed when they talk about it. They've known each other since before Shirley was a mother; her oldest daughter, Sarah, is now 36. But their friendship deepened over the countless hours they spent nurturing Ashby Village.
"We have given birth to something, and we had no idea we were pregnant," Shirley said.
Pat, a former hospice director, healthcare administrator and, at the time, consultant, had long worked with LifeLong Medical Care, a group of community health centers that now serves as Ashby Village's fiscal agent.
Shirley retired in 2009 as an educational psychologist for K-12 schools. Her retirement spurred Ashby Village into the intense planning stages, 18 months before our operational launch.
The two co-founders marvel at the people they’ve met, the talent and commitment so many have brought to the cause. They recruited eight people who began meeting monthly. The meetings evolved to two or three times a week; the numbers swelled.
"In the past year, so many more stepped up to the plate in so many ways," Pat said.
"We kept stumbling onto things. Someone came up with something that would take us to the next level," Shirley added.
They credit Ted Roszak, author of "The Making of an Elder Culture," with pushing them to expand the village beyond the neighborhood of the original planners. Roszak, who died recently, was an early advocate for the village movement, and he and his wife, Betty, became charter members of Ashby Village. Roszak wrote in his book, "As the longevity revolution unfolds, senior villages will become one of the distinctive social inventions of our time."
Andra Lichtenstein "kicked us up another notch," Pat said. In the words of Executive Director Andy Gaines, Andra is one of the "three strong women" who work with him on the Executive Committee.
Jane Selby, another friend and neighbor of the cofounders, was a key participant in the original eight-member board. She has just moved temporarily to Washington, D.C., after her husband, Joe, was appointed to a central position in planning the future of healthcare. The Selbys retain their commitment to Ashby Village and plan to move back to their Berkeley home in a few years.
Feisty professional women are the movers behind most of the villages, author Gail Sheehy wrote in a USA Today article on the village movement. She quoted Ashby Village board member Bob Davis as saying that women are the ones who see the value of socialization.
Both Pat and Shirley now feel that the structure supports itself. "It's not all on our shoulders," Pat said. "Every idea anyone brings to the board, they're all looked at equally," and they've received many important contributions from the membership. There's no ego involved, Pat said, no "founders' syndrome."
Anxiety over membership renewals - needless, as it turned out - caused them to focus on the concept of sustainability. Two highly regarded retired UC Berkeley professors and administrators, Bill Webster and Steve Lustig, will head a sustainability task force to help chart Ashby Village's course for the future. Both are Village members.
Pat and Shirley already have strong ideas about some of the directions Ashby Village should take: broaden the volunteer base, particularly to include more people of various ages; broaden services based on what members say they need; increase diversity among members; expand institutional partnerships; double the membership base to more than 340 within two years; offer subsidized memberships, with the help of grants. Membership fees alone won't cover the cost.
Coincidentally, Village to Village Network, an umbrella organization of existing and fledgling villages, will hold its national conference this November in Oakland. "We asked them to make the theme sustainability," Shirley said.
The urgency of the theme has been underlined by Candace Baldwin, co-director of the Village to Village Network. As she told SeniorResourceGuide.com:
"When you think about the fact that by 2032, there will be more people over 65 than people under 15, we have no time to lose in getting sustainable villages in place."