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Debora Royal has lived in Congress Heights at Ward 8 for more than 50 years. And at age 65, she wants to stay in her mostly African-American neighborhood.
A longtime friend suggested she join Kingdom Care Senior Village two years ago after her mother’s death left her at an impasse. For $10 a month, Royal could take virtual dance classes, take computer classes, and enjoy nature walks and weekly trips to Walmart with other members.
“My health has changed for the better. Definitely my sanity,” Royal said.
Villages are part of a movement that began in Boston two decades ago to enable seniors to find what they need to age in their own communities. Nearly 300 villages have sprung up across the country, providing on-site activities, transportation, technical support, home improvement, and aging services to its members, who pay between $10 and $60 a month to join. Most are grassroots organizations that work not for profit.
However, few are like Kingdom Care, whose membership is predominantly black. Other exceptions are the Golden Age Village in Baltimore, which is also predominantly black, and the Hotel Oakland Village in California, which is predominantly Asian.
A 2016 University of California, Berkeley study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology found that 96 percent of the villagers were white, 77 percent owned their own homes, 70 percent were women, and 70 percent had college degrees. According to the Village to Village Network, most of the organizations are on the east and west coasts, with over 64 villages under development.
“What I’ve noticed is that I get a lot of communications from other villages and all the pictures I see are all white,” said Madeline Franklin, who founded STL Village, which serves black seniors in St. Louis. “And the message some people might take from that is that African Americans are not welcome or don’t belong.”
Several factors contribute to the lack of diversity, people in the movement said.
There’s a language barrier for non-English speakers, said Barbara Sullivan of the Village to Village Network, a national membership-based organization that connects villages across the United States.
Another reason is the way the movement developed. “I think it’s easy for people who start villages, because they’re grassroots, to just invite people like them. 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 expand its membership by recruiting into black churches and reaching more people of color and LGBTQ groups. “What we’re doing is getting people to look at your community demographics, who’s in your community, and what organizations, institutions, and leaders you need to involve so that everyone is included,” she said.
Membership dues have also been a barrier, Dickson said. The cost varies depending on what services the organization offers. At Boston’s Beacon Hill Village, where the movement began in 2002, members enjoy a long list of activities including meditation classes, coffee talks, cocktail and holiday parties, travel and book clubs, concerts and theater trips and trips to appointments. Annual membership is $675 — reduced to $110 for low-income seniors, according to the website.
At STL Village, full membership costs about that much, dropping to $10 a month for low-income seniors, which Franklin says is still a barrier for many. The group now has a grant that offers 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 to expand events and programs even to non-members.
In DC, the city’s Department of Aging and Community Life has awarded fee-subsidizing grants since 2017 after realizing there were no Senior Villages in Districts 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River.
“To expand our outreach and ensure there is equity and inclusion in all eight boroughs, we have partnered with seniors’ villages to expand their presence,” Jessica Smith, the department’s interim director, said in an interview. “Through our partnership with Senior Villages, we are able to reach, support, and serve more seniors, particularly in our most underserved neighborhoods in the district.”
Annually, the Department of Aging and Community Life invests more than $847,000 in 13 senior villages, with each village receiving $50,000 for programming. About 40 villages already existed when the agency applied five years ago. Kingdom Care was the only village to receive financial support.
Kingdom Care operates out of the Greater Fellowship Full Gospel Baptist Church in Congress Heights, of which Kathy Pointer, the village’s charter director, is a member. Realizing that a village could be a vehicle to reach more seniors, Pointer quickly formed a nonprofit with church support and responded to the city’s request.
While most villages take years to establish, Kingdom Care was up and running with 20 members within three months of receiving the offer.
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 live below the poverty line. With the grant, Kingdom Care is helping low-income seniors from Wards 7 and 8 to take full advantage of the resources available.
“Right now we have a project going where we are trying to make sure that every senior who qualifies for home care gets it. Anyone who needs meals to take home can get them,” Pointer said.
Stories of Kingdom Care’s success have spread, and established villages have approached Pointers about ways to get more people of color into the movement.
“A lot of them came and said, ‘Hey, we have to do something about the differences, about the racial inequalities. We need to do something because people of color also need access to villages,” Pointer said.
Research shows that compared to white seniors, black seniors have an increased risk of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, dementia, stroke and cancer, as well as a reduction in life expectancy by up to a decade due to factors related to racial stress.
Belonging to a village can help relieve stress and loneliness for seniors. According to a 2017 University of California report in the Berkeley’s Center for the Advanced Study, particularly in the three years after joining, village members feel they have more social support and are more confident that they will receive the help they they need to stay in their homes from aging services. Villages also drastically reduce isolation by providing opportunities for social and civic engagement.
That was the experience of Royal, who attended Kingdom Care’s Thanksgiving celebration on Friday with 25 other members. “It’s really changed my life,” she said, “because I can do a lot of things outside of the home. I see my senior partners.”
Myah Overstreet is a writer in the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She reported this story through a grant from the SCAN Foundation.