The "Virtual Village" Movement - Ageing's New Frontier How to stay independently in your own home but have all the benefits of a retirement village

Virtual Retirement Villages offer a great new business model for Australian not-for-profit companies and charities who may have run out of ideas and face the prospect of collapse following government aged care funding reform.

"At the core of these villages are concierge service referrals for members," says Judy Willett, national director of the Village to Village Network in the US.

Members can find a whole range of services from household repairs to personal trainers and home care services. Most important, the villages foster social connections through group activities like games, exercise, happy hours and group trips.

Virtual Retirement villages are popping up all over the USA. Currently, there are 140 villages, in 40 states, with 25,000 members, according to the Village to Village Network. Another 120 virtual villages are on the drawing boards, as more baby boomers reach retirement age.

What a great opportunity for Australia!

In Australia ABS data says 3.3 million people in Australia are aged 65 years and over (14.9% of total population). Numbers vary but close to 200,000 older Australians live in Retirement Villages while almost the same number live in residential aged care facilities (nursing Homes). This means that 82% of older Australians are living in private dwellings including living with family.

The population over 65 will grow to 5.8 million in 2031, and to 11.1 million in 2061. This means that, unless there is massive investment in retirement villages and nursing homes, the vast majority of people will be living in their original family home, or a downsized home, or with family. There simply won't be any affordable alternative. How can all these people access services and get the benefits of a retirement village? Virtual Villages can be a grassroots solution to address the current and unfolding challenges of an older Australia. People can do it for themselves!

Susan McWhinney-Morse and Nancy Myers Coolidge, together with 10 other people, created the Beacon Hill Village in Boston Massachusetts, a self-governing, self-supporting consolidator of services.

McWhinney-Morse, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Retirees Turn to Virtual Villages for Mutual Support , says Beacon Hill was a no-brainer. She loved her community, her neighbours and her elegant house.

"We looked at community resources, such as transportation and health care, and asked ourselves, 'How can we access them in an orderly way?' " she said. The answer was that virtual retirement villages could address crucial ageing issues.

Beacon Hill has now been joined by hundreds of other Villages. They are membership-driven, grass-roots organisations that, through both volunteers and paid staff, coordinate access to affordable services. Services include transportation, health and wellness programs, home care, home repairs, social and educational activities, and other day-to-day needs enabling individuals to remain connected to their community while staying at home.

This is all about "ageing in place" with all the benefits and comforts of home.

Rick Cloud (68), of Capital City Village, quoted in the same New York Times article, knew that he wanted to stay in his home in Austin, Texas, as he aged. But Mr. Cloud, who is divorced, was not sure how he could do that without relying on his two daughters.

"Our virtual village can connect me with people my own age so I can do more things," said Mr. Cloud, a retired technology consultant. "I worry about being single and getting older."

The Villages are created by older people, for older people. They have three simple components:

  • Connecting members to vetted, discounted providers and volunteers for any service they might want or need;
  • Offering members healthy living: exercise classes, yoga, informal lunches, and discounted home care providers;
  • Organises stimulating programs, seminars, and trips with the Village community to support connectedness and friendships.

The Village to Village Network offers aspiring and existing Villages day-to-day technical assistance, advice on setting up and governance procedures and the extraordinary resource of an annual conference. One of the key factors is that Villages harness existing community assets and build upon natural networks within the community. While most Villages are being established as grassroots organisations, some are developing within existing organisations such as not-for-profit service providers or residential retirement communities.

While many Villages serve mostly those individuals who can afford the cost of membership (about $375 per annum), 75% of Villages include lower and moderate-income members as well, through some form of reduced or waived fee.

The Village Business Models include: 1) Grassroots; 2) Parent Organisation; 3) Hub and Spoke.

1. Grassroots/Volunteer Stand-alone not-for-profit

This business model is the most common structure for a Village where the organisation is a stand-alone, that is administered through a combination of paid staff and volunteers. Members and volunteers are encouraged to participate in the governance by serving on the board or committees. These Villages have a strong reliance on volunteers to coordinate and execute the needs of Village members.

2. Village under a Parent Organisation

Existing social service and aged care service organisations are strong assets in communities that can see the Village model as an opportunity to expand the mission of their organisation. Within this business model, the parent organisation can serve as an administrative agent and support the Village organisation by providing the back office, legal, financial management, and office space. The Village can be "seeded" under the parent organisation's umbrella and then separate itself after a few years. This model also allows established social service providers (charities) to expand their services into the expanding market of older Australians and offer more comprehensive services.

3. Hub and Spoke

If you can picture a wagon wheel, with a centre hub and spokes extending out to the wheel rim, you have the basic idea of what the hub & spoke model looks like.

The hub is the centre of the wheel and the central, connecting entity. It could be an established Village that allows one or more emerging nearby Villages to piggyback, offering economy of scale savings by handling their administrative and accounting functions. So instead of each Village needing to take care of these functions for themselves, the hub Village handles them for everyone, at less cost in terms of manpower and financial outlay.

A hub can be an existing not–for-profit organisation which, having served as sponsor for successful Village program in one town, decides to support the emergence of a Village in an adjacent town. Each of those Villages would be an independent spoke, delivering services within their own communities and having their own governing councils, but sharing the same not-for-profit organisation as parent and hub.

"As people get older, they face the major dilemma of isolation," Dr. Marc Agronin, author of How we Age says. "Having a local network of people to engage with opens up whole new worlds. It's about discovering your strengths and the joy of living."

The Australian not-for-profit aged care industry can make a new business out of Virtual Retirement Villages - it's the future!

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