It Takes a (Hill) Village to Age in Place

Posted December 18, 2009 at 3:18pm

An English basement a block from the Eastern Market Metro stop is an unexpected hub of activity on a recent Friday afternoon. Gail Kohn, executive director of Capitol Hill Village, welcomes a string of visitors and answers a constantly ringing phone.

Kohn’s job is no small undertaking. She signed on to lead Capitol Hill Village before it launched in October 2007. The group allows Hill residents to continue living in their homes as they get older, a concept some call “aging in place.— Instead of moving to nursing homes or assisted living facilities, members live at home and need only to call Capitol Hill Village to get help running errands, fixing computers or participating in social events. With the help of volunteers, Kohn is often the voice on the other end of the line.

“The effort is mostly about building community,— Kohn said.

The nonprofit is a significant part of the aging-in-place movement that started in 2001 with the organization Beacon Hill Village in Boston. Capitol Hill Village was the first to launch in the District and is the largest, but there are at least six more groups around the metropolitan area, including villages in Dupont Circle, Kalorama and Palisades. Kohn has developed a packet of materials explaining how Capitol Hill Village began and operates, which is then sold to interested parties across the U.S.

Kohn understands well the challenges of holding together a village of this sort. Her background is “continuing care retirement,— and she can easily identify the complexities of caring for people who live in houses scattered throughout a sprawling neighborhood. In contrast, at an assisted living facility, residents don’t need to go to the grocery store or to the doctor because food is provided and medical professionals come to them.

The benefits of staying in one’s home outweigh the challenges, though, Kohn said. Members like living in a busy, intergenerational neighborhood and in homes that some of them have become comfortable in over decades, instead of an “aging ghetto,— she added.

Most Hill residents are eligible to get involved. Members must live within the boundaries of H Street Northeast to M Street Southeast and North Capitol and South Capitol streets to 19th Street Southeast and Northeast. There is no age limit for becoming a member or a volunteer. Individual memberships cost $530 a year and household memberships cost $800 a year, but there are also discounted rates for residents who earn less than $40,000 a year.

“We keep working on making sure we’re welcoming to persons regardless of income,— Kohn said.

Capitol Hill Village has gone from 88 members when it launched two years ago to about 225 today. Kohn was the only employee until February; now there is one more full-time employee and one part-time employee. In addition to membership dues, funding comes in the form of grants from foundations and the D.C. government.

Capitol Hill Village’s model is different from Beacon Hill Village’s in that it relies first on volunteers, then on prescreened vendors, to respond to members’ requests. There are about 160 volunteers, about half of whom are also members and all of whom have passed background checks. If a task is too technical for a volunteer (such as home repairs), Kohn will coordinate with a vendor and follow up afterward to make sure the job is done well.

In Capitol Hill Village’s first year of existence, the group provided an average of 35 services each month, Kohn said. In November, however, the group logged 222 services, including transportation, home assistance, medical advocacy, gardening and technology, and volunteers took care of 189 of them. The group also plans a number of social events throughout the year.

On one afternoon, planning was well under way for an event the following Sunday. Member Paul Malvey, 63, stopped by twice to tell Kohn that his group will play only instrumental music to keep from offending non-Christians and to pick up a check for beverages.

The event, held at the home of Dave and Nancy Maguire in the former Bryan Elementary School (which had been renovated into apartments), was a holiday gathering for members and potential members. More than 70 people showed up, including 18 non-members. The village holds similar gatherings once a month to bring in new members, Kohn said, adding that the next event will be held at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove on Jan. 12.

Member Carol Calva, 71, is helping around the office, too. A Capitol Hill resident for a dozen years, she joined only a few months ago after seeing the help that a neighbor was getting.

“I was witnessing this convoy of people running in and out of her house from Capitol Hill Village,— she said.

About one-third of volunteers are 30 years old or younger, Kohn said. In fact, part of what members appreciate is help from younger volunteers such as Mindy Cohen, who lives and works on Capitol Hill. She looked for volunteer opportunities that could make use of her background in public health and expects to eventually help teach a visually impaired man and woman to use a special computer. For now, though, she’s helping with less technical tasks.

“A couple weeks ago, I helped a woman who lives on the northeast side of the Hill,— she said. “I did some food shopping for her.—

Simone Brown, a Hill resident who works in Tyson’s Corner, said helping village members is “probably the best volunteer commitment I have.— Since she began volunteering in April 2008, Brown has accompanied members to social events, helped sort mail and delivered necessities. She said she appreciates Kohn’s “just say no— policy: If volunteers are unwilling or unable to help out, they are encouraged to say so.

“I’m a super busy person, but it’s really a great way to connect with the community,— Brown said.

Ultimately, connecting neighbors and fostering a sense of belonging is what it’s all about — within reason, of course.

“We do whatever comes forward as long as it’s legal,— Kohn said. “If you need a call girl, no, that’s out.—