ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tens of thousands of older Americans may have found the key to remaining in their homes as they age. They belong to what's called a village. It's a membership organization that provides services and social activities. There are more than 230 of them across the country. We heard yesterday from the original village founded 15 years ago in Boston. Seniors there gather weekly for breakfast and chitchat.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The Red Sox have been recording on their watches what the catchers are giving to the...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Big scandal.
SIEGEL: Most village members are middle class or wealthier, but there are attempts to bring the concept to low-income seniors. NPR's Ina Jaffe takes us to Chicago.
DEBRA THOMPSON: Hi, Miss Richardson. Thanks for coming out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, thank you.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Sixty-three-year-old Debra Thompson is the volunteer who chairs the village in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. She's decided to throw a block party to reach out to older people who may not have heard of the village yet.
THOMPSON: Well, we're all about that senior life (laughter).
JAFFE: So at noon on an autumn afternoon, Thompson's dishing out free hot dogs from the grill and lots of information.
THOMPSON: We have flyers. We're going to knock on doors, spreading the word, getting everybody involved.
JAFFE: Nearly half of Englewood residents live below the poverty line, so they may qualify for free government services that help older adults with everything from employment to nutrition. Debra Thompson tells everyone that the village can connect them with what they need. But a woman named Bessie Stoval is reluctant to sign up.
BESSIE STOVAL: My kids tell me don't sign nothing unless they know what I'm signing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You ain't signing nothing.
JAFFE: Thompson tells her, we just want to know what would help you.
THOMPSON: Because some people need a place to stay. Some people need jobs. Some people have health issues. They need somebody to help them take care of themself.
JAFFE: That describes 80-year-old Frances Shedd. She's watching the party from her porch alongside her homemaker companion Quintichette Jones.
QUINTICHETTE JONES: I keep everything clean in her atmosphere, make sure she's getting her nutrition. I groom her sometimes and then we sit and chat.
JAFFE: Jones works for a government program designed to keep frail, low-income seniors in their homes. Frances Shedd thinks it's great that the Englewood Village can connect more older people with this service.
FRANCES SHEDD: When you get a certain age, you need somebody that'll see after you 'cause we don't feel good when we get up in the morning.
JAFFE: The mastermind of Chicago's Village Project is Joyce Gallagher, the city's deputy commissioner of senior services. She loved the idea of the villages from the first time she heard about them.
JOYCE GALLAGHER: And I wanted to see some way that we could replicate it in the city of Chicago in all of our neighborhoods.
JAFFE: She wanted anyone over 60 to automatically be a member, but one big obstacle was membership dues - the hundreds of dollars that members of most villages traditionally pay for offices and phones and computers. Then Gallagher had her lightbulb moment. Chicago already had all that stuff at its 21 senior centers.
GALLAGHER: So the need to charge a fee was taken away.
JAFFE: There are currently six city-sponsored villages in Chicago, each based in a different senior center. Gallagher wants to have villages reaching out to all 21 neighborhoods where senior centers are located by the end of next year. A big dependence on government services could make the project vulnerable to the whims of state and federal budget makers. But Gallagher says that's not the only focus. Volunteers in each village set their own agendas, like dealing with gentrification or preventing financial scams.
THOMPSON: Did you fill out one of our survey sheets?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: No, I did not.
THOMPSON: Could you please?
JAFFE: The free hot dogs went fast, but the block party lingered on. Debra Thompson said she'd signed up close to 50 people who hadn't known about the village before.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I got - I have people already talking about when you coming to my block?
JAFFE: A sure sign of a successful party. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow, we travel to rural California where seniors don't just receive services from the village. They provide them, too.
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