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Reston explores Village idea to make it easier for seniors to stay in community

By Kali Schumitz
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, September 30, 2010; VA17

Reston community leaders are coming together to develop a stronger support system that will allow senior citizens to remain in their homes after retirement.

The development of community-supported programs called "Villages," which allow neighbors to support each other by providing services such as transportation and home maintenance, is an ideal concept for the area, said Steve Gurney, publisher of the Guide to Retirement Living Sourcebook and a Reston resident.

Villages use volunteers to offer services that supplement those that governments, nonprofits and private businesses provide. Such organizations can range from an online network to connect neighbors, to a nonprofit coordinating volunteer services tailored to meet the needs of a small geographic area. In some cases, residents might pay an annual fee for the service.

The Aging in Reston group is trying to raise awareness of existing services and is conducting an online survey of residents' thoughts about aging in place, as it prepares to develop a Village model in Reston.

"Over 80 percent of the people that we surveyed have said that they feel that Reston is an elder-friendly community," Gurney said. "But when they dig deeper, there are some critical issues," including affordability, transportation and accessibility for people with mobility problems.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey 2006-08, the most recent statistics available, about 6,000 of Reston's 53,679 residents are 65 or older. Of Fairfax County's 1 million or so residents, about 96,100 are senior citizens. The percentage of seniors in Reston and Fairfax County -- 11.2 and 9.6, respectively -- is below the national average of 12.6 percent.

Aging in Reston will conduct its first public forum Oct. 9. Through the forum, the group hopes to raise awareness about public services available to seniors and present four examples of Villages that would provide additional services.

"We want to point people in the right direction . . . and we also want to encourage them to think creatively about how they can remain here," Gurney said.

"We hope this event is just the beginning," said Patricia Williams, an event organizer. "Reston is so unique; we want to create whatever will work best for Reston."

One such Village exists in Fairfax County.

The nonprofit Mount Vernon at Home helps provide clients within a 14-square-mile service area in southeastern Fairfax County the assistance they need to age in place. Mount Vernon at Home's annual membership costs $550 for a single-person household and $800 for a household of two or more, according to http://mountvernonathome.org. The money in part pays for the upkeep of the group's office, along with the salary of an executive director and an office assistant.

Mount Vernon at Home uses volunteers to help its 131 members with services such as transportation to doctor appointments, stores and social events. Volunteers also have helped deliver a hot Christmas dinner and solve computer problems. The nonprofit offers referrals for services it does not provide.

The organization provides social programs, such as trips to the theater or lunch groups. In suburban settings, losing the ability to drive can lead people to become isolated, Gurney said.

"If you lose your ability to drive, you can become extremely isolated in your suburban home, and solutions that can help with that are going to be very important," he said.

Aging in place requires a "three-legged stool" -- appropriate housing, supportive services and social programs, said Jeff Reed, executive director of Mount Vernon at Home. "This is not just about staying in your home; it's about staying connected to the community," Reed said.

As baby boomers age, that solution won't necessarily be building more senior centers, Williams said. Many people prefer to connect in other ways, she said, and more often use the Internet to find their affinity groups.

Supporters of aging in place say it is better for all involved to ensure that people are able to stay in their communities after retirement, although not necessarily in the larger homes in which they raised their families.

For example, seniors tend to have more disposable income and require fewer government services, Reed said. In addition, the resources a Village provides also can be beneficial to younger people, Gurney said.

"Having resources and a community that can support you is fantastic for all of us," Gurney said.

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