Let’s NOT Make a Deal

The question has come up more than once at Village 101 presentations about what the Village’s relationship to bartering services is going to be.  So I thought this might be a good topic for a post.

Straight bartering of services poses some very real problems.  But rather than discuss them theoretically, let’s look at a real-life practical example.

For example, let’s say that 78 year old Mary needs transportation on an ongoing basis because she doesn’t drive. Setting aside taxis (which are expensive), Mary can use the local bus system and she can also get some transportation from a local nonprofit transportation provider—both of which the Village could help Mary arrange.  But what if Mary regularly needs transportation when the nonprofit doesn’t offer it (like after 4 pm) or to someplace not easily accessed by bus? What does Mary do then?

In Mary’s opinion it would be great if she could just trade something she has to offer and wants to give—like computer instruction—-in exchange for “x” number of rides and skip the whole Village membership piece altogether.  That way, it wouldn’t cost her anything and she could also teach people how to use their computers which she likes to do.

Sounds good? Everybody gets what they want right?  And better yet, no money needs to change hands. So what could possibly be the problem with this?

Let’s start with the issue of how to fairly commoditize the value of the services being exchanged.  Does one hour of computer instruction = one hour of transportation?   Is one hour of help decluttering your garage = to one hour of help completing social security forms?  Is one hour of grocery shopping = one hour of accompanying someone to a medical appointment? Since that’s the way most exchanges work, let’s say yes. One hour = one hour regardless of the complexity & skill level of the tasks involved.

But even if we say one hour of computer instruction  = one hour of transportation, what does Mary do if no one in the Village requests computer instruction?  In other words, if no one wants what she has to trade.  She is still going to need transportation.  That need is not going to go away.  Does she try to find something else to trade?

Or what if only one person in the Village needs computer instruction this month and it only takes two hours to teach?  Would it be enough for Mary to only get two hours of transportation this month in exchange?  How is she going to get to where she needs to go the rest of the time?

Or what if there are five people in the Village all of whom want to offer computer instruction in exchange for rides?  Odds are there will not be enough requests for computer instruction to exchange for all the rides these people need.  Or if there are three requests for computer instruction this month, which three of those people get them and which two don’t?

It should be clear by now why Villages don’t do straight barter. It just breaks down too fast.  If someone needs something essential—–like regular transportation to the doctors, to run errands, to the grocery store, to an evening social event—it can’t be dependent on them having something to trade.  If they are going to be able to age-in-place and continue to take care of themselves, their transportation needs have to be met consistently and dependably. Which is why they become a Village member.

That way for one low fee (around $12-15 per week) they get several round-trip rides each week to places they need to go.  Does the same volunteer always take them? No, probably not.  The Village will have lots of people who volunteer to drive. But this way, they can count on getting to where they need to go every week without always having to find someone who wants computer instruction  (or yard work or meal preparation)  in exchange for the ride.  And, for that same $12-15 per week, they can get a lot of other services/programs/support they may also need in addition to the rides.

Given the cost of gasoline and the time obligations of transporting someone even just to the grocery store each and every week, year after year, for 5 years in a row, you can see why many adult children buy memberships for their parents. It gives the parents back their independence and it lessens the burden of having to be a caretaker on the adult child.

I hope it is clear why Villages don’t just facilitate straight bartering/exchange of services. Members join a Village in order to receive aging-in-place support on an ongoing basis, which the Village arranges for them as inexpensively as possible.  Barters simply can’t be counted on to work long-term, which is exactly what Villages are supposed to do: be a dependable and sustainable way for people to age-in-place.

This is not to say that volunteer hours shouldn’t be timebanked and redeemable.  We’re exploring how that might work and what we—and our friends in the community—might be able to offer in exchange as a way to reward our volunteers.   But that’s a subject for another post.

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Why Villages? Why Now?

According to the Greater Portland Pulse, there were over 190,000 people aged 65 and older living in the Portland metro area as of the 2010 census. By 2030, that number is expected to grow to almost 395,000.

Chana Andler, Executive Director, Villages NW

Chana Andler,
Executive Director, Villages NW

That’s a lot of people. So many in fact that even if they all wanted to move into retirement facilities, there is no way they could do so. There simply aren’t enough facilities in existence or being built to accommodate that many people. Not to mention that a huge percentage of this population—current estimates suggest up to 75%—don’t have enough retirement savings to be able to afford the $3000+ per month it would cost.

Fortunately, it’s not where most of us want to end up.

According to a recent survey by AARP, 89% of older adults want to age in their own homes and neighborhoods. This is particularly true of the Boomers who have visited their parents and grandparents in the senior ghettos that were created to warehouse them during their golden years. It’s not the vision of aging they have for themselves.

For most Boomers—-indeed, for most older adults—-their vision of aging is one of aging-in-place. Of growing old, if not in the home they have lived in for 40 years, at least in the neighborhood and community they know and love.

Fortunately, their desire to age-in-place turns out to be a very good thing—good for them and good for society. Aging-in-place has been found to improve seniors’ overall health, life satisfaction and self-esteem. It improves both their longevity and their quality of life.

Aging-in-place is also cost-effective. As reported in The Fiscal Times in 2010: “The median monthly cost for nursing home care in 2009 was $5,243 — more than five times that for seniors living at home.” And according to the National Aging in Place Council, “In 2008, the average cost of a home health aide for a single person was $19 per hour. Assisted-living facilities fees were about $3,008 per month.”

Contrast this to the cost of a Village annual membership—which even in the most expensive urban areas tops out at a maximum of $1000 per year and in most cases is considerably less—and it’s not difficult to see why a recent national report concluded, “Solutions that help seniors age in place are considerably cheaper than the alternatives, and will actually save seniors and taxpayers money by making transportation and services more efficient, while lowering overall healthcare expenditures.” [1]

However, the value of Villages—for their members and for society—does not stop there.

By being focused on building authentic community and relationships between members, Villages dramatically reduce isolation. This can be particularly significant after the loss of a spouse when Village membership helps provide continuity, connection and an ongoing network of support.

Villages are efficient. They do not duplicate services. Instead, they help members make full use of existing community resources and then, fill in the gaps with services from the Village.

Villages are a solution that can work for the middle class and lower middle class, as well as for people with significant means. By making it possible for seniors to get the support they need to age-in-place for as little as $10-15 per week, villages help conserve their (limited) financial resources and help prevent–or at least slow—them from sliding downward into poverty.

Villages help restore purpose and meaning to people’s lives, giving members and volunteers important work to do and finding meaningful ways for each to contribute regardless of age.

Grassroots villages give agency and control back to the seniors themselves. In a Village they are members, stakeholders and decision-makers. They are not patients or clients or customers.

Unlike most approaches to aging, Villages are not age-segregated. Village members continue to live in their own neighborhoods surrounded by and interacting with people of all ages. Additionally, the Village draws its volunteers not just from its members, but from the broader community, which further nurtures intergenerational interaction and relationship.

Villages dramatically reduce the burden on adult children of aging parents by providing the parents with an alternative system of support, which is reliable, affordable and appealing.

For Boomers, Villages provide a way to both “pay it forward” and to craft the kind of retirement support system they want to have for themselves when the time comes.

Villages are an empowerment model. They do not ask “What is someone going to do to help me?” They ask “What can all of us working together do to help each other?”

As a member of the first Village (Beacon Hill Village in Boston) so eloquently put it, “Warehousing elderly people, whether in beautiful rural settings or in urban towers, not only consigns them to a life of isolation and inactivity, but also bankrupts the community they came from. If we can stay in our own communities as we age, everyone gains.”

We couldn’t agree more.

It will take multiple grassroots Villages to serve the growing senior population of the Portland metro-area alone, and the average development time for a Village is 3-5 years. Every single day nationwide another 10,000 Baby Boomers reach the age of 65. There’s literally no time to waste.

Chana Andler
Executive Director, Villages NW
http://www.VillagesNW.org
May 2013

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[1] from Aging in Place: A State Survey of Liveability Policies and Practices, developed by AARP and the National Council of State Legislatures.