Helping elders to remain independent

A woman I know lives alone and, at age 60-plus, has a chronic health condition.  Often she doesn’t feel well. She thinks she would not be good company, so she doesn’t reliably return the calls of people who are trying to be her friends. She’s isolated and depressed and has difficulty asking for help when she needs it. Eventually those friends may stop calling. Does that sound like anyone you know?

Social isolation of the elderly and those with disabilities is an epidemic of our time. It’s receiving increasing recognition in public policy and public health circles. Isolation makes many frail elderly individuals miserable. And they develop health problems that add cost to the our health systems.

Most people who have homes want to stay in them as they age; the studies confirm what common sense would tell you.  But they (make that “we”) are all at risk for the frailties of old age, including losing the ability to drive and other skills basic to living independently.

About 10 percent of New Mexicans are age 70 or older, and the number is growing. About 30 percent of those age 65 and older live in households with $20,000 or less in annual income. About the same percentage, according to statistics from the New Mexico Department of Health, do not engage in any recreational physical activity.

At the recent state Conference on Aging, several social service professionals talked about elders they know of, using terms like “dying of loneliness,” living alone without nearby family or community support.

One new approach that’s getting attention is called “villages.” It’s a slightly misleading term because it suggests a physical grouping. This concept doesn’t require that people live next door to each other, as long as they’re in the same neighborhood. It’s a mutual assistance organization.

The village concept was the topic of a talk by Aging and Long Term Services cabinet secretary Myles Copeland at the conference.

A “village” is a self-governing self-help organization created by a group of older people for the purpose of enabling seniors and those with disabilities to stay in their homes. The village concept recognizes that those who are not independent in all respects have talents and abilities to contribute and that everyone can participate.

The form of the village is whatever the founders decide they want. If they decide to charge dues or hire employees, they can do so, and there are models available for them to follow. If they want to make their organization free and voluntary, they can do it that way. They can undertake programs like providing transportation, contracting with reliable handymen or other service providers, keeping neighbors connected and checked on, or whatever else they choose.  Unlike informal arrangements among friends, this approach can ensure that nobody is left out.

The concept is simple to understand. The implementation can be a huge undertaking, depending upon how ambitious the group tries to be.  It’s as big as creating a business from scratch.

Villages can choose to join a national nonprofit called the Village to Village Network, which provides information and resources for new and prospective villages.  The network’s website ( lists several villages in New Mexico. Three are listed as “open,” meaning currently functioning, in Santa Fe, Corrales and Albuquerque. Listed as “in development” are villages in Las Vegas, Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Taos.

The 20th century created unprecedented levels of freedom and mobility. We have known all along that there’s been a price to pay for all that freedom, including the loss of support for elders left behind. Creating villages is one approach toward restoring the structure of community that most of us will need, now or in the future.

 Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2016

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