Senior Villages Change Lives

Members of the Encounters Circle participate in a field trip at Art with a Heart, a local non-profit.

A senior village is different from what you’d initially think. A senior village is “not exactly a geographical place, it is a mind place, a friend place, almost a spiritual place connecting people together,” said Esther Weiner, past president of Northwest Neighbors Connecting (NNC), one of Baltimore’s senior village programs. Senior villages are communities of older individuals that work together to establish opportunities for socialization, transportation, education and more for its members.

NNC was one of the first senior villages to be accessible to more socio-economic classes through its low annual dues and connection with Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI), a program of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, said Beah Zander, NNC’s vice president.

NNC provides a supportive network that enables older community members to stay in their homes.

“We want people to be able to live for as long as they can and as healthily as they can in the homes and places where they are presently living,” said Rev. Arnold Howard, president of NNC’s board.

At the heart of NNC’s effort is building relationships and decreasing social isolation.

“The whole idea [is] developing friendships, of developing mutually supporting relationships of people close by you,” Howard said. “Now you’re connected to people who have mutual interests because of NNC and when something happens…NNC [is often] able to provide support.”

“We really build lasting relationships,” said Anne Shimanovich, CHAI Program Manager of Aging in Community.

One relatively new program at NNC is the Circles program. Designed by a joint master’s student at Johns Hopkins and MICA who volunteered with NNC, the Circles program brings together people with similar interests or in a similar geographic area. By creating smaller groups of locally or interest-oriented people, it’s easier to forge friendships and welcome new members to NNC.

The experiment began with one circle. In accordance with the principle that all ideas come from within the group, the group named itself “Encounters.” Now, NNC has five circles that include interests ranging from playing bingo to eating out.

“The people that participate in all these circles are so wonderful,” said Shoshana Harris, board member, circle coordinator and contributor to NNC’s newsletter. “Personally I’ve made so many friends and helped so many people connect. We’re expanding beyond my wildest imagination.”

Heidi Schloss, board member, co-chair of the arts and trips committees and illustrator and contributor for the newsletter demonstrated the strong connections forged in the group when she said, “Last year I had surgery and my friends came and brought me meals.”

NNC members benefit from knowing that they have friends who care about them and interact with them. There are volunteers who come to CHAI to do check-in calls with housebound members and a caring committee that sends birthday cards and get-well-soon packages.

The board members are themselves members of NNC.

“From a leadership standpoint, one of the things you’ll notice is that all of the leaders are actively involved in the processes and programs of NNC, so that helps maintain that membership-driven type of understanding of why we are serving, because we are constantly in touch with the membership,” said Howard.

NNC is driven by its member-board, but is also influenced by its membership. As a member-driven organization, NNC strives to hear the ideas and needs of its members and act upon those suggestions. Many programs have come out of this process including the transportation program, the Diversity Dialogue committee and all the new Circles groups.

“One of the things we want family members to know,” Howard said, “is that their loved one has an organization and has a community of people.”

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