On a recent muggy morning, a small group of older adults from East Falls Village is chatting outside of the Falls of Schuylkill Branch Library. It's Thursday and, despite the heat, no one from the friendly bunch wants to miss the organization's weekly walk through the neighborhood.

As they choose a route for the hour-long stroll, Fred Vincent sits patiently on a wood bench near the building's Warden Drive entrance. The retiree says the casual jaunt gives him the chance to connect with folks from his zip code.

"There isn't really any good place to meet neighbors in this neighborhood," says Vincent, a former public school teacher.

Standing nearby is Connie Deasy, a fellow retiree who makes a point of attending the scheduled event for a similar reason. Deasy says she enjoys having the time to meet more Fallsers.

"Working full-time I never really got to know anyone but my closer neighbors and this is a way to get to connect to a broader range of folks," says Deasy, who worked for the city.

Just after 9:30 a.m., the group departs and heads for a leafy residential alleyway behind Midvale Avenue, where well-manicured gardens and sitting areas are on display.

Aging in Place

The weekly walk is just one of the social activities available through EFV, a nascent neighbor-to-neighbor organization for residents that want to grow old in the area they adore.

"It's not a piece of real estate or a development of any kind. It's a virtual community," says the group's chair, Charles Day, who helped launch the East Falls Community Council initiative in January. The organization officially launched in June.

Each member – the majority in their 60s and 70s – pays a yearly fee – $125 to $175 – for the organization's offerings, which also include services like home maintenance, transportation and a vetted vendor list.

The group does not offer assisted living or skilled nursing care to its members, but does help folks find those services.

"People who are growing older are faced with some decisions," says Day. "They recognize that they can't do everything around their house that they used to be able to do."

"When they're retired they begin to lose their business and professional associates and something needs to fill the gap and I think you naturally focus on your neighborhood in that situation," he adds. 

Unlike similar organizations that have cropped up across the country, including one in Center City, EFV is largely maintained by its volunteer membership base. There are about a dozen non-member volunteers, but there are no paid employees.

It's about sustaining a satisfying sense of independence through neighbors helping neighbors.

Joe Terry, who sits on EFV's steering committee, handles the phones for the organizations. When a member calls looking for help in the house or a friendly visit, it's Terry's voice on the line.

"The concept of the Village movement is that those people that can help will be helped when they're older," said Terry, who's lived in East Falls for more than two decades.

"Give me 10 years and I'll be calling on the phone finding out if someone can take me to the bank," he adds.

How it started

Day said EFV grew out a desire to provide neighbors with a more affordable way to access the types of amenities traditionally provided by more pricey continuing care communities.

"My wife and I thought maybe there's a different way, a better way to do it," says Day.

To learn more about the Village movement, Day traveled to Boston for an information session about Beacon Hill Village, a professionally run organization.

It was there, says Day, that he picked up a "huge amount of information" about the logistics of organizing and maintaining an Aging in Place initiative.

But most importantly, Day says he walked away with "the knowledge and the conviction that you can do it."

Day also visited a number of NORCs – Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities – in the area. Those social service organizations are typically supported by a mix of private and public dollars.

After getting some positive feedback from an informal survey placed in The Fallser, a monthly newspaper completely devoted to its namesake neighborhood, Day contacted State Senator Vincent Hughes.

Hughes, whose district includes East Falls, helped secure a state grant from the Department of Economic and Community Development to perform a feasibility study.

"The conclusion: feasible? Yes," says Day, who wasn't surprised by the results.

"Fallsers are proud of their community and they care about it," he says.

Inspiring a movement

Moving forward, Day says he would like to have more EFV member households to make the organization more sustainable. He's shooting to have 80 in the near future.

He'd also like to provide more information about the kinds of needs – such as end-of-life care –that members can expect to have as they age.

"How to intelligently and compassionately help one another and give people the guidance they need," says Day.

Further down the road, Day would love for the movement to spread throughout the city.

"If I could dream, I'd say you'd have three, four, half a dozen organizations like this," says Day.


For NewsWorks