The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Villages’ for the aging coming to more Black communities

The villages movement started in Boston two decades ago as a way for seniors to find what they need to age in their communities. Nearly 300 have sprouted across the country.

Debora Royal, center, takes her seat for the Thanksgiving meal for members of Kingdom Care Senior Village Friday in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Debora Royal has lived in Congress Heights in Ward 8 for more than 50 years. And at age 65, she would like to remain in her largely African American neighborhood.

A longtime friend suggested she join Kingdom Care Senior Village two years ago, after her mother’s death left her in a rut. For $10 a month, Royal has been able to take virtual dance classes, attend computer literacy sessions, and go on nature walks and weekly trips to Walmart with other members.

“My health has changed for the better. Definitely my mental health,” Royal said.

“Villages” are part of a movement that started in Boston two decades ago as a way for seniors to find what they need to age in their own communities. Nearly 300 villages have sprouted across the country, bringing activities, transportation, tech support, home improvements and aging-in-place services to their members, who pay anywhere from $10 to upward of $60 a month to join. Most are grass-roots organizations that operate as nonprofits.

Few, however, are like Kingdom Care, whose membership is predominantly Black. Other exceptions include Golden Age Village in Baltimore, which is also predominantly Black, and Hotel Oakland Village in California, which is predominantly Asian.

A 2016 University of California at Berkeley study that was published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology found that 96 percent of village members were White, 77 percent owned their own home, 70 percent were women, and 70 percent were college-educated. According to the Village to Village Network, most of the organizations are on the East and West coasts, with over 64 villages under development.

“I notice I get a lot of communications from other villages and all of the pictures that I see are all White,” said Madeline Franklin, who started STL Village, which serves Black seniors in St. Louis. “And so the message that some people might get from that is that African Americans are not welcome or not a part of that.”

Several factors contribute to the lack of diversity, people in the movement said.

There is a language barrier for non-English speakers, said Barbara Sullivan of Village to Village network, which is a national, membership-based organization that connects villages across the United States.

Another reason is the way the movement has evolved. “I think it’s easy for people who start villages, because they’re grass roots, to just invite people like themselves. In the model, you invite your friends,” said Charlotte Dickson, of Village Movement California, a statewide coalition of villages.

Dickson said her organization is working to broaden its membership by recruiting in Black churches, reaching out to more people of color and LGBTQ groups. “What we’re doing is pushing people to kind of look at what are the demographics of your community, who is in your community, and what are the organizations, institutions and leaders that you need to get involved so that everybody is included,” she said.

Membership fees have also been a barrier, Dickson said. Costs vary, depending on what services the organization provides. At Beacon Hill Village in Boston, where the movement started in 2002, members enjoy a long list of activities such as meditation classes, coffee conversations, cocktail and holiday parties, travel and book clubs, concerts and theater outings and rides to appointments. Annual membership is $675 — discounted to $110 for low-income seniors, according to the website.

At STL Village, full membership costs about as much and drops to $10 a month for low-income seniors, which Franklin said is still a barrier for many. The group now has a grant that provides free membership for those living in underserved communities. That has enabled STL to increase membership among people of color by 20 percent, Franklin said, and expand events and programs even to nonmembers.

In D.C., the city’s Department of Aging and Community Living has made grants to subsidize fees since 2017 after recognizing that there were no senior villages east of the Anacostia River, in wards 7 and 8.

“In order to expand our outreach efforts and ensure there was equity and inclusion across all eight wards, we partnered with the senior villages to expand their footprint,” said Jessica Smith, the department’s interim director in an interview. “Through our partnership with senior villages, we are able to reach, support and serve more seniors, specifically in our most underserved neighborhoods in the District.”

Annually, the Department of Aging and Community Living invests more than $847,000 in 13 senior villages, with each village receiving $50,000 for programming. About 40 villages were already in place when the agency requested applications five years ago. Kingdom Care was the only village to receive funding.

Kingdom Care operates out of Greater Fellowship Full Gospel Baptist Church in Congress Heights where Kathy Pointer, the founding director of the village, is a member. Realizing that a village could be a vehicle to reach more seniors, Pointer, with the church’s support, quickly created a nonprofit and responded to the city’s request.

While most villages take years to form, Kingdom Care was up and running with 20 members within three months of obtaining the bid.

Today, Kingdom Care has 54 members and about a dozen volunteers in a neighborhood that is over 90 percent Black and where a quarter of the households fall below the poverty line. With the grant, Kingdom Care helps to ensure that low-income seniors from wards 7 and 8 can take full advantage of available resources.

“Right now, we have a project going on where we’re trying to make sure every senior that qualifies for a home-health-care aide, that they get it. Everyone that needs home-delivered meals, they get it,” Pointer said.

Stories of Kingdom Care’s success have spread, and established villages have reached out to Pointer for ways to bring more people of color into the movement.

“Many of them have come and said, ‘Hey, we need to do something about the disparities, about the racial inequalities. We need to do something because people of color need access to villages too,’ ” Pointer said.

Research shows that in comparison to White seniors, Black seniors experience an increased risk of chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, dementia, stroke and cancer, as well as lower life expectancy by as much as a decade because of factors that include race-related stress.

Belonging to a village can help ease stress and loneliness for seniors. Village members, especially in the three years after joining, feel they have more social support and are more confident they can get the help needed to remain in their homes, according to a 2017 report by UC-Berkeley’s Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services. Villages also drastically reduce isolation by providing opportunities for social and civic engagement.

That has been the experience for Royal, who on Friday attended Kingdom Care’s Thanksgiving celebration with 25 other members. “This has really changed my life," she said, "because I get to do a lot of the stuff outside of the house. I get to see my senior partners.”

Myah Overstreet is a writer with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She reported this story through a grant from the SCAN Foundation.

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