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Kanawha Valley Village People are 'adventurers in aging'

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The Kanawha Village People steering committee includes Marilyn Witbeck (front), Larry Rowe, Hazel Palmer and James Thibeault.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They're called the Village People, but it's not the kind of Village People who belt out "Y.M.C.A."The Kanawha Valley Village People are part of a national movement devoted to "aging in place." The aim is to coordinate services and support among a group of like-minded older folk so they can remain in their homes and share in their communities as long as possible, without moving into senior housing or assisted living."The Village to Village Movement is a movement of people who have determined that the way they want to spend the last chapter of their lives is in their own homes," said James Thibeault, 66."If we can encourage this, in some ways it makes a lot of sense that we watch out for one another -- the compassion of our government and our billfolds only go so far," he said.The numbers are daunting. As Sheri Snelling, founder of the Caregiving Club, wrote in a 2012 article:"Of those who turned 65 last year, 20 percent will live to age 90, and 1 in every 50 boomer women will reach 100. The quality of their, and our, lives, and where we will all live as we age, are critical questions for our society. In an AARP survey, 90 percent of senior citizens said they wanted to stay in their homes as long as possible, but that puts a potential burden on the family members who will become responsible for managing their care."Hence, "virtual villages" created and organized and connected locally, socially and digitally.The first such group, said Thibeault, began in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood around the turn of the century. "Community members banded together and decided their response to long-term care would be supportive of one another."Since then, there are now more than 125 such groups nationally that are incorporated, many with a staff person. The Kanawha Valley group recently incorporated and has a steering committee of which Thibeault is a member.The group is moving forward on multiple fronts.An interim board will be chosen at a meeting in late October. Board members will likely partly include people such as doctors, social workers, a lawyer, a pharmacist -- "people from professions and skills who hopefully can answer members' concerns rather than just a generic board of administrators," said Thibeault.Each village group has its own personality, he said.The Kanawha Valley Village people "is mostly retired people and they started to discuss what's retirement going to look like for us," he said. "We have a few people in their '50s, many in their '60s and early '70s, probably a handful in their '80s."The group meets six times year, puts out a newsletter and has staged a successful fundraiser. The organization had an early partnership with Cabin Creek Health Systems, but the group is moving to become an independent non-profit as quickly as possible aided by steering committee member and lawyer Larry Rowe.  The West Virginia Partnership for Elder Living has supplied a grant of $9,200 for infrastructure, including a computer and supplies, part of a VISTA volunteer's time allocated to the group and other needs.
"At this point, the services are primarily social," Thibeault said. "There is a telephone tree that people check on each other. There is a book club that's forming -- there are social meetings that include informational type of stuff.""Crisis Casseroles" come into play to provide simple meals delivered to members' doors when there is a medical emergency or family crisis.The last meeting also featured a doctor, social worker and pharmacist offering information on how to prepare your medical information in a convenient, up-to-date form. Plus, the significance of preparing a final directive like a living will and creating a medical power of attorney was stressed.Longer than otherwiseHazel Palmer, age 67, was born Jan 1, 1946, and "so I was one of the first boomers."She is one of the steering committee members for Kanawha Valley Village People, a group she sees as both social and practical for her and her husband, John, 68.
She and her husband still intend to eventually move into a continuing care retirement community in Charleston, but the Village People effort "will enable us to stay in our own home longer than we would have otherwise," said Palmer.The group is developing practical tools like a four-page medical information Med Card form that folds into a wallet or purse as a convenient communication tool should someone have an emergency or need to see a doctor. They are also developing a pre-screened resource list of folks who can provide quality fix-it services around a home.The group can also offer mutual support to vexing questions, said Palmer."My dad is 95 on Nov. 2 and I am power of attorney and that's a challenging role. But there are other people in the group playing similar roles with aging parents. So, we can talk about some of those challenges and the way we meet it or give each us other mutual support as we go through that."The Village concept is an exploration of how to age in support with others in a community."Boomer have always been adventurers -- working at changing the social order of things -- and we're still in that mode. We're saying there are other ways to age and we're going to figure out the best way for us, and we're going to help each other figure that out."We often pair our meetings with food, with potlucks," said Palmer. "So, meetings always have a social aspect and often give an educational aspect as well. I think we're committed to having fun as we explore innovative ways to age."Palmer uses the word "fun" on purpose. "Because we really think that we can have a good time together, and we also think we can be really creative about how we age."Many in the group have children who live out of state or have no children at all."Ours are all out of state -- we don't have anybody nearby," she said. "I would guess a pretty good majority in this group do not have family nearby so we're going to fill that role for each other."For Barbara Frierson, who has been active on the membership committee, the Village People is "a community building exercise.""It's a way of building a community within the larger community of the Kanawha Valley," said Frierson, 69."We're working on finding other people who we like and enjoy spending time with, and eventually were hoping we will be able to support each other through volunteer work, through responding when there's a crisis of some kind and being able to identify service providers whom we know and can provide trustworthy services."For me, it's sort of the fulfillment of a dream. For a long time, even way before I became a senior citizen, I thought an ideal community would be living in a place with all my friends, everyone having their own home and being able to connect and help each other."There's a lot going on in the background as this retirement support network coalesces, said Frierson. "We're trying to get to know each other and encouraging people to tell friends about it and bring people to these general meetings to kind of build up potential for membership.""We are part of something bigger -- we're a local bloom on a much larger tree. There are more than 125 villages either operating or underway all over the country. So, it's kind of cool."Adventurers in agingRight now, meetings attract anywhere from 30 to 45 attendees and the group has about 25 charter members. Charter memberships -- available for $75 -- enable people to serve and vote on the interim board that's being developed and to receive the special medical summary form."We're explorers in this things--adventurers in aging," said Thibeault. "It doesn't have to be as dreadful as it could be. This is a group that says we can come at this in other directions, in other ways. The government is not going to be there to necessarily to help us. We're not going to wait for the government to do it for us."It really is up to us to invent."For more about the Kanawha Valley Village People, call 304-767-5774. Search for the group's Facebook page and also email: The next potluck meeting is 2 p.m. Oct. 20 at the group's headquarters at the Hale House in Malden, 4208 Malden Dr. Reach Douglas Imbrogno at or 304-348-3017.
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