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Family Finances

Family-Friendly 'Burbs Turn Senior Friendly

Programs provide chefs, home repair and other services to help suburban seniors age in place.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

The staircase in Adele Youngblood's two-story house in the Minneapolis suburbs is a daily challenge. The 76-year-old, who's had back and knee surgeries and a hip replacement, crawls up and down the stairs using her hands as well as her feet. But Youngblood refuses to move from the home where she has lived since 1963 and raised her three children. "I get a lot of flak from my friends about moving," says Youngblood, who has been divorced since 1979. "I tell them to be quiet. It's my decision, and they know I am happier in my home."

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Thanks largely to a program run by the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis, Youngblood has been able to continue living in memory-filled surroundings. The program arranged for a walker for each floor, grab bars in the shower and an emergency button if she needs help.

This program is part of a growing movement nationwide to help aging suburbanites like Youngblood stay in their homes safely for as long as possible. About 90% of retirees and 80% of baby-boomers say they want to remain in their longtime neighborhoods indefinitely, according to an AARP survey.

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Like many seniors, Youngblood moved to the suburbs when her kids were young. But now those family-friendly communities of the 1960s are graying and becoming what's known as naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs. Following this generation are their children. "More baby-boomers have lived in the suburbs than any other generation, and the majority will continue to age in place or move within their same community," says William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a report, Mapping the Growth of Older America: Seniors and Boomers in the Early 21st Century. Frey says they'll require health care, transportation, social services and other public aid.

Many community planners believe that aging-in-place programs could help many elderly homeowners avoid institutional care. More than 100 programs exist in places as diverse as Boston's Beacon Hill, New Canaan, Conn., Madison, Wis., and the Indianapolis suburbs. Often, it's the small, inexpensive service -- a ride to a doctor's appointment or home-delivered groceries -- that can make all the difference.

The program that helps Youngblood was developed in 2003, when the Jewish Family and Children's Service received nearly $1.2 million in federal and state grants to test strategies for helping seniors in the suburbs of St. Louis Park and Hopkins remain in their homes. The project helps make seniors aware of existing aid. "The community is rich in resources, but people do not know what they are, how to access them or who qualifies for them," says Annette Sandler, the project coordinator.

Local seniors helped produce a directory that includes transportation services, home-care agencies and even hairstylists who make house calls. They also created a cable TV program on topics such as health-care directives and fall prevention. Besides helping to run the program, seniors also volunteer their services to other aging-in-place residents. They teach classes, deliver meals and drive other seniors to appointments.

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The Minnesota program has enlisted many nonprofit groups, businesses and government agencies. For example, it started a Community Chore Day to help older people with home-maintenance tasks. Now the Rotary Club is taking the lead, and local schools are offering community-service credits to high school students who volunteer.

The Challenge of the Suburbs

Aging-in-place programs got their start in 1986 in Penn South, a ten-building apartment complex in Manhattan. Residents and local social-service agencies created the program after an 84-year-old woman with dementia wandered onto a roof and died of exposure. "This event spoke personally to residents about their vulnerability," says Fredda Vladeck, who helped develop the program, which operates a center at the complex, and is now director of the Aging in Place Initiative at the United Hospital Fund.

Because Penn South residents live in a compact area, it's relatively easy to deliver services. More difficult are suburban communities, where thousands of seniors live in single-family homes spread out over many streets and neighborhoods.

In 2004, an agency in the Indianapolis suburbs met this challenge by buying a house in one of the neighborhoods and turning it into the program's office. "Our front door looks like their front door," says Lori Moss, coordinator of ElderSource, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis. "We had to build rapport with residents. So being physically in their neighborhood makes a big difference."

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ElderSource created Elder-Friendly Communities, which covers an area of mostly two-story, three-bedroom homes built 40 to 50 years ago. "Our program works in the suburbs because we literally went door-to-door to introduce ourselves," says Claudette Einhorn, chairperson for ElderSource. Elder-Friendly Communities' vendors, such as drivers and gardeners, offer discounts from 5% to 50%. The program charges an annual membership fee of $120.

Beyond the support services, the program provides social and educational activities. George Bond, 70, and his wife, Evagene, 71, both retired writers, have gone on trips to apple orchards and museums with many of their neighbors, who are close in age. George belongs to a men's group that is drawing up a plan to improve accessibility at a nearby park.

The Bonds moved from Peterborough, N.H., to the Indianapolis suburbs for a job ten years ago. "We have formed relationships that appear to be growing deeper," Evagene says. She notes that the program could "create a support system as we age."

In some communities, the residents themselves are creating aging-in-place programs. If you're interested in starting one, look at Staying Put in New Canaan (www.stayingputnc.org), a program modeled on Boston's Beacon Hill Village. Both programs are nonprofit membership organizations created by local residents.

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In April 2006, several New Canaan residents met to discuss whether the Beacon Hill Village model could be adapted to their own community. Soon after the meeting, the city government released a survey on the needs of older residents. With the findings in hand, the core group decided to create Staying Put.

After several neighborhood meetings, residents set up a board of directors and filed papers to become a nonprofit organization. The core group sent a survey to those on their mailing list to determine possible service offerings. In early October 2007, 275 people attended a "kickoff" of the program, which started officially in January '08.

Jane Nyce, Staying Put's executive director, recommends that a board of directors should include individuals with business experience and connections to town services and other nonprofits. "We could turn to experts on our board for advice on all the key elements," she says. The experts included a lawyer who helped incorporate, public-relations professionals who promoted the program and individuals with fund-raising experience. For more information on establishing an aging-in-place initiative, you can order a manual at www.beaconhillvillage.org.