Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Aging in Place: Homehaven and Frances “Bitsie” Clark

Author: 
Ray Waddle

Frances “Bitsie” Clark retired at 72 after years as a Girl Scout executive, a New Haven (CT) arts advocate, and community volunteer. Then life revved up again. She was elected a New Haven alderman for eight years. Now, at 81, she directs an innovative local retirement organization that could change the way Americans live out their later years.

Clark is executive director of HomeHaven, part of a national, grassroots “aging in place” village movement that allows older people to stay at home as long as possible.

It’s not a traditional village or subdivision but a self-governing organization of local volunteers and others who provide supportive services to older people at home.

“People saw that something had to be done,” Clark says. “We know the demographics will overwhelm municipalities and existing facilities in future years. Even 10 years ago it was clear that people were living longer. We were seeing more and more 90-year-olds. This village concept is something everyone knows is needed.”

HomeHaven staffers or volunteers provide transportation, computer help, and companionship. They organize museum trips, concert outings, restaurant get-togethers, and make referrals for yard work and home improvements. 

So far, about 180 older people are HomeHaven paid members with access to these various forms of home help and community-building. (Single membership is $600 annually, $800 for a couple; some are subsidized.) HomeHaven relies on 64 volunteers to make the visits, offer help, serve on committees, and welcome new members. The aim is to keep older people involved in the environs they know and love – home and neighborhood. See www.homehavenvillages.org.

“We saw that older people who are not kept busy begin to get depressed, and their health declines,” she says. “Staying engaged in the neighborhood, being among friends, going on outings, is as important as medicine or exercise.”

HomeHaven is made up of three villages that cover three geographic areas of New Haven – East Rock, Westville Village, and Amity Village. It is based on the Beacon Hill Village model, which was formed 12 years ago in Boston by a dozen people who had a vision of helping older people who had few options but to stay at home or little desire to move away to a nursing facility. By now there are about 120 villages across the country, with 200 others in development.

Clark says the urgency for such a model is obvious, but the baby boomer generation is not an easy sell on the subject of making preparations for the later decades.

“Growth of the villages can be a slow-moving thing. Baby boomers grew up being told never to trust anyone over 30! They have a vision of eternal youth: ‘I don’t want to think of myself as old. I don’t need services. I have my friends.’ But what gets people interested in the villages is the activities we offer – and meeting a new set of friends. They are at the age where their friends are dying.”

About 30 new members join HomeHaven per year. Clark hopes to expand into other neighborhoods, whether middle-class, working-class, or others. 

She takes the long view of the aging-in-place movement. A century ago, similar grassroots organizing stirred to meet a changing, urbanizing nation.

“Aging in place is a very interesting movement that mirrors similar initiatives from a century ago,” she says. 

“Country day schools, the Girl Scouts – these were grassroots organizations where people in the community, usually women, saw a need. This fascinated me – they were started not by professionals but by citizens who saw this was going to be needed for decades to come.” 

Last year, a survey of the aging-in-place villages was conducted by the Rutgers School of Social Work, giving a national overview of their work.

The report says 29 percent of village members requested services in a typical month; 34 percent of members attended group events. Transportation was the village service most frequently used by members in the past year. Home repair and preventive health screenings were also popular. 

As the report notes, a defining feature of the villages is their practice of referring members to vetted,  outside service providers. Frequently requested referrals included home health care, nursing aides, housekeeping, technology assistance, and transportation. Villages also referred members to providers who offered discounts.

“Since the early 2000s, there has been a growing body of research, policy, and practice focused on transforming social and physical environments to improve older adults’ quality of life and ability to age in place in the context of their broader communities,” the report says.

To Bitsie Clark, the aging-in-place model is a pragmatic answer to a national population challenge, allowing elder individuals to thrive in the heart of the neighborhood.

“I see this movement coming out of an American tradition of community. It’s terrific, and the nation is ready for it.”

Issue Title: 
Test of Time: The Art of Aging
Issue Year: 
2013