What if older people could have all the social support they need without moving into a retirement village? While retirement villages carry great appeal for many older New Zealanders, they aren’t for everyone and not all can afford to live in a village. So it is no surprise that the virtual village model has been embraced by those keen for an alternative.

Virtual Village Howick was established by East Health Trust and HBH Senior Living for seniors in Howick. It’s designed to support older people in the community to age well by creating a ‘virtual neighbourhood’ of people who support each other to enjoy life, stay healthy and remain in their own homes for as long as they wish.

While this is thought to be the first virtual village in New Zealand, the ‘Village without Walls’ concept actually began in Boston in 2002 with the establishment of the Beacon Hill Village. This formed the impetus for the establishment of the Village-to-Village network in 2010 – a network that supports over 250 villages across the USA today.

“The whole idea is being engaged and helping one another,” said Mr. Scharlach, Kleiner professor of ageing at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied nine villages in California. “They’re not just services, they’re designed to be communities.”

The virtual village model expanded to Australia in 2013 with the creation of The Hub, located in Sydney which has 330 members.

And now the model has spread its wings to New Zealand. After a survey was conducted last year to evaluate interest levels within the community, East Health Trust and HBH Senior Living forged ahead with the initiative.

How it works

Virtual villages are member-led, self-funding organisations managed by members of the local community. Members pay a modest yearly fee to gain access to resources and social connections that help them age in place.

Members and volunteers provide support to each other through a range of services and activities, such as ride sharing, assistance with pets or help with small chores. The villages foster social connections through activities that link older people who live nearby. Villages may develop more extensive services as needs are identified and the membership grows. The village links with other services, clubs and groups in the local area and assists members to connect with them.

Members stay in touch through village websites, email, or phone. Many villages also use social media sites like Facebook to stay in touch.

Virtual Village Howick’s first event

Virtual Village Howick recently hosted its first event – a transport forum and morning tea for Howick’s senior citizens. The event was designed to help seniors understand their transport options if they can’t drive now or in the future.

Many locals attended the forum and reported that it was very informative and helped created a real sense of community. Attendees found it particuarly helpful to meet transport providers face-to-face rather than having to work out how to use the service online.

Barbara Davis, a member of the Virtual Village Howick establishment group, spoke of life when she was growing up and how people in her neighbourhood surrounded each other with support.

“That’s the concept behind the Virtual Village,” she said. “The aim of the first event was to put this into action – to create a morning of fellowship and support by sharing information on transport options as you age.”

Many local providers of senior services attended, including representatives from Driving Miss Daisy, Age Concern, Freedom Drivers, St John, Citizen Advice Bureau and Independent Living.

Charles Miller, who runs Driving Miss Daisy for Howick, spoke of the difference between them and a taxi service.

“We aim to provide that little bit of extra help, such as bringing food shopping to the door and ensuring we have space for wheelchairs or walkers.”

He stressed that it’s a good idea to start using these services gradually – for example, using Driving Miss Daisy for longer, more stressful trips like going to the airport, hospital or if going out at night. That way, you don’t lose your independence but keep it ticking over by filling in the gaps.

HBH Senior Living chief executive Bonnie Robinson says the Virtual Village is all about older people in the community overcoming loneliness by supporting each other, and creating connection and purpose.

“Independence isn’t about having no support, it’s about continuing to have a say in your life. I suggest to many older people that they just get the support they need to lead a good life.”

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