A Community Built On a Shared Need
Village Movement Forms Ties to Help Retirees Keep Homes

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Nobody moved to southern Fairfax County 30 years ago for the neighborhood, because there was no neighborhood. People bought houses on the fringes of horse farms to get away from everything.

But those folks are older now, and they're missing something -- neighbors to lend a hand, offer a ride to the grocery store or drop by to say hello. To remain in the homes they have long enjoyed, residents are creating a new kind of village.

Following the lead of nationally known Beacon Hill Village in Boston, residents have formed an organization that would stitch their lives closer together and offer a variety of services that might allow them to hang on to their lifestyle as they age. Known as Clifton-Fairfax Station Transition in Place Services, it is one of a half-dozen of such grass-roots organizations forming in the Washington region and across the country as America's baby boomers age together.

For an annual fee, these organizations use a small professional staff and volunteers to arrange members' transportation to the doctor's office or the grocery store, to find in-home medical care or to compile a list of reliable contractors who do home repairs at a discount. Modeled on the idea of a hotel's concierge service or a village's face-to-face volunteerism, the organization is part of a broader strategy to promote "aging in place" as an alternative to retirement homes.

The village movement is attracting attention as the leading edge of baby boomers reaches 65 in 2011. The idea appeals to people who want to stay in their homes as they grow older, a group that surveys estimate is 90 percent of the elderly. The approach can help the pocketbook, and the faltering economy has given the concept a new urgency.

In the Washington region, Capitol Hill Village in the District is the only fully operating village so far, serving 260 people. It celebrates its first year this month. Four such villages are developing in Montgomery County, including in Burning Tree and Fallsmead. The District has at least one more, including Palisades Village, which is looking for an executive director. The Clifton-Fairfax Station village will begin operating in January. Mount Vernon at Home, a similar organization in Fairfax's inner suburbs, plans to start up in spring.

"This is the urban equivalent of barn-raising," said Palisades Village President Andrew Mollison, whose organization will begin phasing in operations before the end of the year.

The model has been used mostly in urban and suburban communities, where transportation and other services are more accessible. The Clifton-Fairfax Station village organizers hope the secluded homes that long ago had been connected by horse trails and two-lane highways will be linked by a round-the-clock telephone call center.

"This is where I've lived now for 40 years. I don't want to move," said David Smith, who came to Clifton Presbyterian Church one Sunday evening last month for the Clifton launch. "Out here, we live sort of independently. And that's one of the problems we're facing."

* * *

Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House when Shirley Davis and her husband bought the general store at Wolf Run Shoals and Clifton roads. The store had been at that crossroads, in one form or another, since the late 1800s, and it was a good place for getting to know people.

"When I first got here, you knew almost everybody who went up the road in a car," said Davis, 76. There was no need for an organization to look out for one another. It was something people just did. Now, Davis lives alone in a stone house across from the store that still bears the family name.

Last Tuesday, she was listening to Rush Limbaugh on WMAL and maneuvering her wheelchair between the counter and her stove, her kitchen filling with the steamy aromas of a stewed beef roast and an apple pie.

Her husband, Leighton, who died in 1990 at 65, purchased the land in a bankruptcy sale for $1,500, and there was plenty more open land around it.

"You just knew everybody around here," Davis said, leaning her cheek on her hand. "They're not rude now. I mean, everybody's got something to do. I guess we're just living life too fast. Anymore it's hard to find anybody at home."

Her two grown daughters live in the area, and she has some good friends who are often up for a drive in her Lincoln Town Car to shop or see autumn leaves, but it's not like it used to be. She fights depression, something that got easier with medication. It bothered her that she couldn't do what she used to do, such as working in the garden.

All the same, she said, this is her house, and she wants to live in it as long as she can. A relative put it this way: "She said she's not leaving her house till they take her out in a box."

* * *

When Fairfax officials held a conference in April titled "Reinventing Your Neighborhood," more than 350 people registered -- so many that some were turned away.

The interest in village communities has grown since Beacon Hill Village opened Feb. 1, 2002.

Mike Cheek, director of NCB Capital Impact, a nonprofit organization that promotes giving loans to low-income communities and cooperative ventures, said 13 village organizations exist. Twenty-four are preparing to launch in 10 states, and he thinks current economic conditions will make them more popular.

Older adults often count on the equity in their homes to provide for retirement. They might sell their homes and move to a more inexpensive region or to a retirement community, or they might take out a reverse mortgage. With the collapse in housing prices, more older Americans find themselves unable to sell their homes.

"It is a lot less expensive to stay in your home than to move to a nursing home," said Beacon Hill Village's executive director, Judy Willett. She said state governments, foundations and such programs as Medicare and Medicaid are studying the movement as a way to hold down costs associated with aging.

Unlike Beacon Hill Village, which serves about three square miles, Clifton-Fairfax Station would cover 47.5 square miles in an area where land is zoned for homes on five acres or more.

The organization will cover an area extending south from Braddock Road, between Union Mill Road and Ox Road/Route 123, to the Occoquan River. Cole said about 30,000 people live in the area, 3,000 of them 65 or older. Dues have been set at $100 a year.

"That's the challenge for us," said organizer William W. Cole, 77. "If you want to pick up three people to go to the grocery store, they're not going to be neighbors."

* * *

The hitching post is long gone, but people still drop by Davis's General Store to pick up salt lick, horse feed, house paint, guns or the latest gossip.

Last week, the talk was about the bailout plan on Capitol Hill, and what the halting economy would mean, and how their neighbors are now two sorts of people. Brian Bennett, who bought the store 20 years ago, said there are the newcomers -- young folks with big money who moved into the mansions carved out of old farms -- and old-timers whose children are graying.

To outsiders, the area seems like a wealthy enclave, with a touch of horse country for the middle- and upper-classes. But appearances mask the number of house-rich older people whose wealth is locked into their homes and who get by on modest pensions.

Bennett said he would like to know more about the Clifton-Fairfax Station village, which to him seems like a reasonable idea.

"Houses are little farther apart, and the driveways a little longer, but the needs are still the same," he said.

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