It’s neighbor helping neighbor as community programs help people age in place

Bill Knuff of Groton Neighbors talks with Liz Strachan in her home about the policies and the responsibilities of volunteering for the organization.
Bill Knuff of Groton Neighbors talks with Liz Strachan in her home about the policies and the responsibilities of volunteering for the organization. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

On a mild afternoon in early January, sunlight warms the room inside Claire and Peter Macy’s house on Baddacook Pond in Groton.

This is the house that the Macys, married 50 years, had built for them and have lived in since 1973, the home where they raised their two daughters; where the family canoed, swam, and skated; where Peter, 94, a retired Air Force major and businessman, built stone walls and a barn, dug gardens, and planted perennials, including daisies like the ones his wife, vibrant and lovely at 81, carried in her wedding bouquet.

And this is where the couple wants to live for as long as possible.


In another era, the Macys might have moved to a retirement home or closer to their daughters and their families — one in New York, the other in Italy — but this is a different time and generation: Like many of their peers — there are 1.2 million Massachusetts residents over 65 — they are living longer and in better health than their parents and grandparents were, and as they ponder the future, they’re determined to make their own decisions about where and how they live.

Around the country, older people are expressing the same desire — a movement epitomized by Beacon Hill Village. Incorporated in 2001 in Boston, it was the nation’s first grass-roots venture by and for older adults who want to support themselves and their neighbors in their homes and the neighborhoods they love as they age in place. Beacon Hill Village is part of the fast-growing Village to Village Network, but other groups modeled on the old-fashioned ethic of neighbor helping neighbor, such as Lexington at Home and Eastern Massachusetts chapters of Neighbor Brigade, are meeting the need.

Nationwide, there are 215 Village to Village “villages” in operation — 11 in Massachusetts, including one in Groton, Groton Neighbors, that launched in January. Meanwhile, 130 more are under development across the country, including projects in Shutesbury and South Dartmouth.


The national network helps groups start programs, fosters connections with established ones, and provides resources, but its principal role is to change the paradigm for aging: Instead of a social services approach, each village shifts the control to the older adults, giving them the power and the means to make their own decisions.

“The founders said, ‘We don’t want social workers telling us what to do,’ ” said Laura Connors, executive director of Beacon Hill Village.

Villages either have a paid staff or are all-volunteer. Those with paid staff still provide volunteer services for no additional charge above the membership fee. At Beacon Hill Village, the annual fee supports an office and a small paid staff in addition to services and programs; Groton Neighbors operates with a virtual office run by volunteers. Volunteers also provide the services.

Membership fees vary. At the 350-member Beacon Hill Village annual fees of $675 for one person and $975 for a household bring in less than half the annual budget of $485,000. The rest comes from donations and fund-raising. (Moderate- to low-income members pay $110 for an individual membership and $160 per household.)

By contrast, the 51 members of Groton Neighbors support a budget of only about $6,500 to cover insurance, a website, database, and national dues. Each member pays an annual fee of $120 for services that are not so different from the informal help neighbors might offer one another: a ride to an appointment; a hand with housekeeping or yardwork; and technological assistance.


Claire Macy, a nurse practitioner until her retirement in 2000, said she and her husband, who is legally blind, considered moving, but it didn’t take long for them to realize that leaving Groton would be a lonely prospect.

“We looked elsewhere, but I realized [that] if I walk into the hardware store, no one will know who I am,” said Claire, who didn’t know then that she would become a Groton Neighbors founder.

The idea began three years ago over dinner at a friend’s. Claire was sitting a seat away from Bob Lotz, a retired engineer and manager. The conversation turned to retirement and the village movement, which both had been reading about.

Bob Lotz, Camilla Blackman, and Bill Knuff set up Blackman’s phone to receive calls during a training session for Groton Neighbors staff.
Bob Lotz, Camilla Blackman, and Bill Knuff set up Blackman’s phone to receive calls during a training session for Groton Neighbors staff.Craig F. Walker/Globe staff

Over the next year, Macy and Lotz met weekly at the town’s public library or in each other’s homes, sharing ideas, reporting on conversations with leaders of other villages, and planning the community meeting held on April 1, 2015.

“We formed a steering committee [that] May,” said Lotz, 76, board president. “We registered with the Commonwealth as a nonprofit.”

Every member is expected to volunteer (in some cases, a willingness to contribute suffices), but the village cannot meet every need: Volunteers cannot assist someone with dementia, for example. But there are plenty of older adults who benefit, and local and state officials are watching.


“It’s important that people get served, that their needs get met,” said Kathy Shelp, director of the Groton Council on Aging. “Through the interview process, if they find that someone is not a fit for Groton Neighbors, they can pass on the name, with permission, to the Council on Aging. It just opens the gates to [helping] more people.”

“We want to promote the independence and empowerment of older people and caregivers. It’s a great opportunity for us to really do the right thing for older adults,” said Alice F. Bonner, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs.

The town of Groton, which covers roughly 33 square miles, has more than 11,000 residents, but the town is also home to a small and mostly invisible group of older people with few resources and low incomes. Under the bylaws of Groton Neighbors, anyone is eligible for a subsidy of up to 80 percent if they ask for it.

One of the first requests for service came from the Macys. Peter wanted to meet a friend for coffee on a Friday morning. Claire would be leaving home earlier to attend a class at the senior center. A Groton Neighbor would give Peter a lift. Claire would pick him up after her class, and the two would ride home together.

It was just what they needed — independence.

For more information ...

WORKSHOP (Saturday, April 22, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ) Community Networks Aging in Place is a collaboration of voluntary associations. Community Networks Aging in Place will host a workshop in the Council on Aging at 1276 Main St. in Concord (in the Harvey Wheeler Community Center). All who are interested in establishing similar associations are welcome. Admission is free but registration is preferred. Contact Rachel Rosenblum (rosenblum36@gmail.com ).


LECTURE (Monday, Feb. 13 at 5 p.m.) Beacon Hill Village will present a talk by Dr. Atul Gawande titled “Being Mortal’s Village: The Value of Community and Choice as We Grow Older.” Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard professor, writer, and public health researcher. The reservation deadline for the event has passed, but the Village to Village programs noted in BOLD below will show a simulcast. Call ahead for more information and to register.


Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Midtown, Downtown, Waterfront, North End, South End, and West End






Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown






Bedford, Carlisle, Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, and Winchester





Amesbury, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, West Newbury, and Salisbury












Jamaica Plain






Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Harwich, Orleans, and Wellfleet


















Martha’s Vineyard




Dover, Natick, Needham, Wellesley, and Weston





For more information about other Massachusetts villages in development, visit www.vtvnetwork.org. For resources on aging in place, contact the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs at www.mass.gov/elders or call 800-AGE-INFO (800-243-4636).

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein04@icloud.com.