By William Kincaid, MD, MPH
Village to Village Network Board President
The Village Movement is just over 20 years old. Beacon Hill was the first Village to explore an “age and place” and “neighbor helping neighbor” model. There are now over 268 active Villages and 40 to 60 groups exploring establishing a Village. Most of the Village growth has occurred during the past 10 years. Active regional coalitions have helped scale the model.
But during the same decade, America has aged rapidly. From 2010 to 2020, the population aged 65 and over grew faster than during any decade of the past 130 years. Now one in six people are age 65 and older representing 55.8 million people. Enormous amounts of money are being spent caring for this aging population.
A large body of research suggests that most people want to age in place—remaining in their homes and communities as they age. The Village model is a well-established means of helping older adults to do so. Villages offer a locally based opportunity to older members to become more engaged in their community. Village members help design and provide services, programs and events that are most meaningful to them. This promotes individual agency and community cohesion by helping to keep people connected as they age, thus fighting social isolation. Villages promote healthy aging by embracing the social determinants of health.
Although survey information strongly suggests that individual Village members enjoy belonging to a Village, we know very little about the impact belonging to a Village has on our members. Every Village believes that they are having a positive impact on members, but how do we know for sure? The evidence-based answers just aren’t there.
As Villages members, how do we go about answering questions like the following:
Do Villagers stay in their homes longer than non-Villagers?
What is the average length of time a member belongs to a Village?
Are we healthier?
Are we more active physically?
Do we spend less time in hospitals?
Do we live longer?
Are we less socially isolated and what effect does that have on our longevity?
How smoothly do we transition to other living arrangements when we can no longer live safely in our current home?
Is the Village model a “best practice”?
Are the answers to these questions important to us? I would say yes, these are important questions and the answers are critical to the future of the Village Movement--and they are important to policy makers as well. To answer them we will need (1) to better understand how such complicated research activity is designed and carried out, (2) better information, (3) stronger connections to present partners, and (4) to develop new partners. Village to Village Network (VTVN) has made progress laying the groundwork for this effort.
First, for almost two years, VTVN, the membership association representing the nation’s Villages, has been working with individual villages (and the web-based data management systems that many villages use to manage their operations) on the Village Impact Project (VIP). This project aims to aggregate better descriptive data on the services, programs, and events that villages offer. These descriptive data are the outputs of villages; they describe what villages do. They are not outcomes.
Second, the VTVN has partnered with Rutgers School of Social Work and the RAND Corporation on the Engaging Villages as Key Partners for Healthy Aging Research Project. This project is funded through a Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Eugene Washington PCORI Engagement Award. This project is a network-wide, national initiative to spur dialogue among Village members and leaders about the “big questions,” such as the ones listed above and how to design future research projects to answer them. (To learn more about this project, refer to past blog posts at Blog | Villages Research.)
Estimates suggest there are about 50,000 Village members. That would make Villagers just 0.09% of the 65+ population. We are tiny, but we are championing a powerful idea: That aging Americans can organize in their neighborhoods and have a meaningful impact on their health and wellbeing. They can use their life experiences to partner with each other, with businesses and with organizations (both governmental and non-governmental) to age on their own terms and live with meaning and purpose in their communities.
To learn more about these projects and join the conversation on data-related efforts and the future of Villages, join us on Wednesday, October 4, at 3:00 PM ET at a special session of Village to Village Network’s 2023 Virtual Gathering.