Imagine being relieved of some of the burden of caring for your elderly loved one—without having to place her in an assisted living facility in order to do so. Instead, she could remain in the comfortable familiarity of her own home, and all of the services she needs—as well as a rich program of social activities—would be brought to her.

Sound like just a pipe dream? Not at all. With the advent of the "intentional community" concept, also known as "aging in place," it's increasingly possible for today's elderly to stay in their own homes for a longer time—or even a lifetime. An intentional community is a form of independent living for seniors.

Intentional communities are springing up all across the nation, from west coast Avenidas Village in Palo Alto, California to east coast communities such as Beacon Hill Village and Cambridge at Home, both in Massachusetts. The concept is simple, says Judy Willett, Executive Director of Beacon Hill Village, an intentional community that serves residents in the Beacon Hill and adjacent areas of Boston. Rather than moving to senior housing to receive needed assistance, you pay a membership fee and receive free or discounted support services in your own home.  "It's one-stop shopping," says Willett.

Services at Beacon Hill Village include home care services such as household help and homemaking (cleaning, grocery shopping, errands, meals), personal assistance, companionship, and nursing care, if needed. "Home care service is an integral part of these communities," says Andrea Cohen, MSW and CEO of HouseWorks, the preferred home care provider for Beacon Hill Village and other similar villages.

But as important as support services are, there is an equally important need for activities that help to fend off the social isolation that often accompanies the aging process. Educational seminars, films, exercise programs, trips, and social events held in nearby churches, restaurants and community centers help to fill the void. These social opportunities encourage elderly people to get out and meet their neighbors, says Willet.  "There's a real neighborhood feel."

An individual membership costs vary, from $500 per year at Capitol Hill Village in Washington DC, to $750 per year at Avenidas Village. What is included in that fee also varies widely from community to community. For example, the fee may include transportation to grocery shopping or doctor's visits, as well as a 10% discount on health care costs. Some communities work with volunteers to do everything from household help to exercise classes; while others charge a small fee for most concierge services.

Most villages have household memberships available as well as discounted memberships subsidized by community donations for those with lower incomes. "One of the tenets of an intentional community is that everyone, no matter what the income, can be part of it," says Willett.

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How does this pricing compare to assisted living? In many cases, according to Willett, the cost is far cheaper than assisted living. If however, 24-hour nursing care is needed, the cost is comparable to that of a nursing home—but the difference is that the person is in their own home.

One important aspect of an intentional community is that it is a nonprofit organization, driven by its members. While most communities have a small hired staff to oversee daily operations such as information and referral to services, it is the collective members' needs that dictate what direction the village is headed. This is good news for both today's elderly persons and their caretakers, who will soon join the ranks of the aging population. "We can create our own future the way we want it to be," says Cohen.

Creating an Intentional Community

Don't have an intentional community in your neighborhood?  Beacon Hill Village was founded by a group of residents who wanted to create a better alternative for themselves than an assisted living setting. You can do the same. Here's how:

  • Form a group of interested neighbors, preferably with a variety of interests, skills and backgrounds.
  • Use census reports to determine the demographics of your community, specifically how many people are over age 50 and the median income.
  • Develop a survey to determine desired services and what people would be willing to pay for them.
  • Talk to local providers, such as health care agencies and maintenance companies to determine whether they'd be interested in working with your members.
  • Consult with a business professional to crunch the numbers and draw up a business plan; determine estimated membership and service fees.
  • Raise start-up money through donations or fund-raising efforts.
  • Hire a director for your village to help recruit members and contract with service providers.