Organization Supports Hyde Park Seniors

We were all involved in social movements when we were younger, and now as we’re getting older we’re seeing a new social issue and are forming a new movement.”

The issue that Board President Susan Alitto and the Chicago Hyde Park Village is organizing around hits close to home. Seniors like Alitto are increasingly interested in aging in their own neighborhoods, but they frequently face significant barriers to growing old in one place. Organized by seniors, for seniors, the Village Movement seeks to mitigate those challenges. Villages are grassroots, volunteer-driven communities of seniors that offer their members services and social opportunities that enable them to stay in their homes as they age.

In the twelve years since a group of seniors began the first village in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, the movement has grown to include over one hundred villages. Chicago already has two villages operating on the North Side, mostly serving seniors in Old Town, River North, and the Loop.  Chicago Hyde Park Village will raise that number to three with the official launch of its memberships and initial services later this month.

“We share a great belief in group action for a cause,” said Alitto, describing the Village movement as a natural step for her generation, which came of age in the 1960s. Unlike the civil rights and antiwar movements of Alitto’s past, this movement is about building new institutions rather than pressuring for change in established ones.

“People are living longer, but not necessarily better,” said Alitto. Villages are trying to address the quality-of-life aspect.” She believes the Village should act “like an institutional memory, so that everybody doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time they are faced with a new aging problem.”

After three years of planning, Chicago Hyde Park Village plans to start with the services they’ve already identified that their members need  the most and then expand on an as-needed basis and as funding permits.  There will be three types of services: a database of member-recommended service providers, a group of service-providers vetted institutionally by the Village, and services provided directly by volunteers.

Building a volunteer base to drive members to appointments and errands will be one of the Village’s initial challenges. The Village leadership hopes most of the volunteers will be members offering services to one another, in keeping with their mission of neighbors helping neighbors. But as a group of seniors from the Hyde Park supper club, The Salon, pointed out, this reliance on help from within may prove to be a flaw in the model.

A spinoff of Chicago Hyde Park Village’s early planning stages, Salon members agree with the Village’s description of the challenges of aging: the threat of social isolation and the need for support in order to remain active in one’s community. But as one skeptical Salon attendee said at this month’s meeting, it’s likely that “people will wait [to join the Village] until they need the services and can no longer provide them.”

To address such situations and the differing needs of the local senior population, Chicago Hyde Park Village will offer two levels of membership. Though the associate membership, at $240 a year, will be half the price of the full membership, the board is aware that twenty dollars a month will be a limiting factor for some seniors in the area.

With this in mind, they’ve already put aside a portion of their limited funding for subsidized memberships, drawing from the bequest of a founding board member who passed away.

“We don’t want to get people in as members, and then have the money dry up,” said Alitto.

The Hyde Park Village board envisions their urban village as not only mixed-income, but also truly integrated.

“Sometimes we’re too smug. We say Hyde Park is a wonderfully diverse, integrated community, and it’s not as diverse and integrated as we’d like to think,” Alitto explains.  Still, she stresses, the Hyde Park location offers certain advantages. “Whether we are truly integrated or not, there is a comfort level with diversity here that there isn’t elsewhere,” she said. The Village intends to promote meaningful engagement for seniors across Hyde Park who often live near each other but whose public engagement may be split along lines of race, age, or class.

The Village also seeks to promote intergenerational dialogue within and about the Hyde Park neighborhood.  This requires not only creating spaces for such conversations, but also combating the stigma of aging that makes some seniors hesitant to engage with their neighborhood. This engagement process began with a recent forum for University of Chicago students and local seniors to exchange their (mixed) opinions about the University’s latest large-scale plans for a high rise on 53rd Street.

Much of the Village’s programing requires minimal funding, but Alitto expects that she will need to raise a fair amount of money to pay the staff that will be needed to support the expansion of the currently volunteer-run Village. Still, she hopes that within a few years the Village will be “a major institution in Hyde Park, with spokes reaching out to other communities, helping them start their own Villages or mini-Villages in South Chicago or Chatham or Beverly.”

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