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How Can Boston Prepare for Rapidly Aging Population? Not With Nursing Homes

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Beacon Hill Village members chatted over lunch in 2012.
Beacon Hill Village members chatted over lunch in 2012. The Boston Globe

Forget nursing homes, 55-plus communities, and Floridian resorts. Elderly people don’t want them.

Senior citizens increasingly want to “age in place,’’ which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.’’ Experts in aging say “The Village Movement,’’ a grassroots program started in Beacon Hill that supports aging in place could be one of the best solutions for many of the age-related challenges the city faces.

As part of Boston’s “Age-Friendly Initiative,’’ Mayor Marty J. Walsh and the Boston Commission on Affairs of the Elderly addressed some concerns surrounding Boston’s aging community at Faneuil Hall on February 28, touching on transportation, affordable housing, and social engagement, among other topics.

The economic think tank Milken Institute recently ranked Boston as fourth best large city for successful aging, but both the Walsh administration and residents agreed there’s room for improvement.

“Boston traditionally ranks among the strongest for older people,’’ Walsh wrote in an article “A Vision for Age-Friendly Boston.’’ “We have in-home supports for those who need them, city-funded transportation, and a network of volunteer options to engage older residents in meeting the needs of our community. But we know that we can always do more.’’

An Aging Boston

Mirroring a national trend of aging baby boomers and urbanization, Boston’s population of seniors is growing rapidly. The number of people aged 60 and over is projected to rise 65 percent from 2010 to 2030 – from 88,000 to around 130,000 people.

Policy makers and the media sometimes focus on the negative implications of these numbers – various aspects of economic burden like social security payments and medical insurance are generally associated with an aging population, in addition to housing concerns. But reframing how America views its elders could shape the face of future aging communities, and drastically improve the lives of seniors for generations to come, senior citizens like Beacon Hill Village founder Susan McWhinney-Morse said.

“Some people get shuffled aside when they retire,’’ McWhinney-Morse said. “They’re considered useless and drags to society. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s the image we are fighting.’’

The current group of burgeoning elders will be very different from generations of elderly before them: Research shows they will live longer, healthier lives, and they want the Boston community to reflect that.

“The word ‘retirement’ tends to imply diminishment and disengagement,’’ said Paul Irving, chairman for the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging. Irving mentioned the common misconception that elderly people want to move to 55-plus communities in warm climates. “That model is broken…People want to age at home and in place, and remain engaged in their cities.’’

The Village Movement

In 1999, a group of 11 Boston senior citizens living in Beacon Hill decided they did not want to leave their homes. They loved their community, and did not want to end up in a retirement home or an assisted living village, so they started The Beacon Hill Village, a grassroots organization that helps its members age in place through member-to-member support. They began enrolling members in 2002. There are now 340 members of The Beacon Hill Village.

The Village occasionally receives grants from private foundations, but does not get any government funding.

The Beacon Hill Village sparked a national movement, and there are now 150 Villages operating across the country, with another 120 in development. They are connected virtually through the Village to Village Network, but each Village is unique, reflecting the diverse members that comprise it. There are even a couple operating in Australia and the Netherlands.

“They were really ahead of the curve,’’ Beacon Hill Village Executive Director Laura Connors said of the Village’s founding members. “They took control of their own aging process.’’

The model is simple and effective, said Connors. Beacon Hill Village members pay yearly fees that range from $110 for low to moderate-income individuals, to $675 for those who can afford it. The fees fund everything from group trips, health and wellness programs, home repairs, educational events, driver assistance, and the salaries of four staff members.

Members make up the Village’s board and decide what types of services and activities they’d like, so each Village is unique in its offerings. Some of Beacon Hill Village’s members went to The Sports Museum at TD Garden this winter, while others went to Cuba in 2014. There’s currently a music-themed trip to Germany in the works, Connors said.

Locally, there are monthly potlucks, and members visit each other when they get sick to provide support.

One of Beacon Hill Village’s founders, 81-year-old Susan McWhinney-Morse, said she hopes the Village movement is part of a larger shift in how the nation thinks about older people.

“We have a new role to play in society,’’ McWhinney-Morse said. “We are very capable. We’re living much longer, but we are far better educated than any other older group in the history of man.’’

McWhinney-Morse called the frequent stigmatization of America’s elderly as useless and incompetent “silly,’’ adding that she and other Village members feel “at the top of their game.’’

Since Village members care for each other, the movement prevents senior citizens from becoming physical burdens to their children, McWhinney-Morse said, adding that it also prevents seniors from becoming financial burdens.

The average nursing home stay costs $50,000 per person, per year, according to AARP.

MIT’s Coughlin called the Village Movement “one of the best innovations for aging’’ he’s seen in decades.

“It’s not just enabling things we need like transportation and taking out the trash, but it’s creating a virtual community to go to the movies or have monthly or semiannual events with people,’’ he said.

There are currently eight Villages operating in Massachusetts in communities such as Cambridge, Newton, and Wellesley, while Jamaica Plain and Brighton residents are developing Villages of their own.

What Boston’s Doing Well

In April 2014, Mayor Walsh announced that Boston would be joining the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities to better prepare the city for its expanding over-60 population. The WHO encourages member cities to address eight basic needs of older people, including housing, transportation, social participation, health care, civic participation, and employment. The Walsh administration is using the WHO checklist as a tool for assessing and charting progress of the city’s age-friendliness.

Boston is currently doing well in many areas.

As the Milken Institute’s report suggests, Boston has an abundance of health and wellness options, including school-affiliated hospitals with cutting-edge medical technology. The Hub also boasts plenty of cultural events at museums, concerts and art galleries.

“Seniors are no longer choosing the beach or the golf course,’’ MIT’s Age Lab director Joe Coughlin said. “They want the smaller college towns.’’

The Starbucks on every corner, the museums, the healthcare services, and the college basketball games are all attractive to the aging Baby Boomers, he added.

The city’s Elderly Affairs Commissioner, Emily Shea, said the Walsh administration is already making moves to improve affordable housing concerns, citing Walsh’s housing initiative, “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030,’’ which proposes to create 5,000 new housing units for the elderly by 2030.

Walsh also signed a bill earlier this month that would allow long-term Boston residents to defer paying their property taxes to a later date, with interest.

Still, Boston is an extremely expensive city to live in, and with more seniors citing aging in place as a long-term goal, some could need additional financial support.

McWhinney-Morse described the cost of living in nursing homes “ludicrous,’’ and said she’d love to see “thousands’’ of Villages pop up in the next decade.

“I’m not so sure that couldn’t happen,’’ she said. “This is maybe the best, and the simplest, and the most elegant solution for the vast majority of people.’’

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the highest paying members of Beacon Hill Village would pay about $8,000 per year. That is incorrect. The highest paying members currently pay $675 per year.