By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Not so long ago, many Americans lived close enough to their families that adult children could help care for aging parents.
But with so many people these days living far away from close relatives, a group of elderly Fairfax County residents is working to create a new sort of family, one of neighbors and friends and professionals supported by annual dues.
Since spring, more than two dozen residents have been meeting, mostly in one another's living rooms, to create Mount Vernon at Home, a nonprofit group that would offer elderly members in Fort Hunt a host of services to help them remain in their homes as they age. Such efforts have become more urgent as the first baby boomers have turned 60 years old.
They also have attracted a lot of attention among people age 50 and older, especially in Fort Hunt because of its high proportion of elderly residents. More than 22 percent of Fort Hunt's population is older than 62, compared with about 10 percent in the rest of the county, according to the 2000 Census.
A little-publicized meeting in October at Hollin Meadows School drew about 145 people, including county Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who had to run out to copy more fliers at his office when the supply ran out.
"This is a big issue out here," said Mary-Carroll Potter, 71, the group's president. "People want to stay in their homes." The group incorporated as a nonprofit organization in June and hopes to be operative by January 2009, she said.
Mount Vernon at Home sprang to life after some residents saw an article about a similar organization in a bulletin put out by AARP, a lobbying organization for the elderly. Potter, a former administrator at the District law firm Covington & Burling, said studies by AARP repeatedly show that more than 85 percent of elderly residents want to remain in their homes.
As described by its planners, Mount Vernon at Home would be a hybrid of an elderly cooperative, a country club, a reference library and a hotel concierge service. For example, homeowners who belong to the group could call or e-mail the organization to arrange a trip to the grocery store on short notice, find a reliable plumber who might give a discount or arrange for in-home medical services. To avoid isolation, the organization would offer activities such as trips to museums, restaurants or adult education classes.
Potter said organizers are mindful that surveys also show that baby boomers, in particular, expect quality services.
"It's not going to be a bingo-like operation," she said. "It's going to be a high-quality operation."
The models for such a service include elderly communities such as Capitol Hill Village in the District and Beacon Hill Village in Boston, whose philosophy centers on allowing senior citizens to live out their lives in their homes and neighborhoods. Norman Metzger, vice president of Capitol Hill Village, has visited Mount Vernon at Home organizers, as has Judy Willet, executive director of Beacon Hill Village. Potter has also visited Boston to learn more about creating such an organization.
What is different for the Fort Hunt group members is that they must translate the experiences of urban communities to the suburbs, where such issues as transportation are more complicated.
"The biggest problem with a suburban area is not only knowing everybody from different communities, but transportation," Potter said. "We've had to learn a lot."
The organizers are working on the assumption that Mount Vernon at Home's membership would include anyone in the Zip codes 22307, 22306, 22308 and 22309.
"We don't want to attract more people than we can manage," said Julie Anne Curtis, 66, a retired teacher who lives in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County and serves on a committee exploring medical services. She said her committee has been evaluating nearby retirement centers that offer short-term respite stays, allowing a person to recuperate after a debilitating operation or illness before returning home.
To be sustainable, Mount Vernon at Home would need a minimum of 350 members, even if it had fewer at the start, Potter said. Dues would be $900 to $1,200 a year. The revenue would help support a small staff, including an executive director, and the leasing of an office. Volunteers also would be necessary.
So far, residents from 52 to 92 have expressed interest or volunteered to help pull the organization together, Potter said. One woman told her that "she's given up everything but bridge for us."
One thorny issue is whether dues should be graduated so that younger members, who would presumably need fewer services, would pay less. Potter said the group was not inclined to set up such a scale because of the organizational challenge and fairness.
"You don't know when you're going to get sick," Potter said.