Every May, the Administration for Community Living leads the United States’ observance of Older Americans Month. The theme for 2021 is “Communities of Strength.” Older adults have built resilience and strength over their lives through successes, failures, joys and difficulties. Their stories and contributions help to support and inspire others. This Older Americans Month we celebrate the strength of older adults, acknowledging the power of connection and engagement in building strong communities. To honor older adults in a way unique to the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy (VSHSL) we will be sharing content, highlighting partners and bringing awareness to the work being done to support older adults right here in King County. Check back each week this month to learn more about older Americans in King County.
Have you ever heard of a Senior Village?
The senior population in the United Sates is growing. By 2034 older adults are expected to out number people under the age of 18 for the first time in American history. As the older population grows, not all will have access to formal systems of care, and an increasing number of older adults are seeking ways to stay connected to their community and to get support in navigating the transitions of getting older without losing their independence.
That’s where Senior Villages come in. The Senior Village concept  has emerged over the last several years as a community-based approach to aging in place that recognizes and relies on the concepts of community, belonging, and interdependence and seeks to build not only personal resilience but community resilience as well.
The village model brings together neighbors and members of a community to form a network of support for senior members, offering opportunities for social engagement and connection in order to help seniors remain in their communities of choice. As members of a Senior Village, people who want to stay in their own homes or communities as they age contribute their resources to a community pool in order to access a neighbor-based system of support. Members can then access numerous resources —such as transportation, health and wellness programs, basic home repairs, community engagement activities, support fulfilling basic needs and connection to vetted and affordable service providers—even if they do not access formalized funding for that care.
The model emulates the concept of a village, where community members know their neighbors, provide mutual support and rely upon one another’s expertise to thrive independently in daily life.
Unique funding to support developing Senior Virtual Villages in King County
The village concept is one way that seniors and their neighbors and communities collaborate to support older adults to remain in their communities of choice. Several neighborhood centered villages have existed around King County for several years. In 2020, through the VSHSL strategy Senior Virtual Villages, King County sought to expand access to this community-based approach by funding programs that reflect the diversity of older adults in King County. The Senior Virtual Village strategy offers one of few examples of formal funding across the nation for this community-led model of aging-in-place.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit King County, eight communities were awarded funds by the VSHSL to create new or enhance existing Senior Virtual Villages. The word “virtual” in this social engagement effort was originally intended as a metaphor. Now, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the “Virtual” in Virtual Villages has become an impactful reality, as these programs have used online classes, phone-based outreach and food delivery to help a growing number of seniors alleviate isolation exacerbated by the pandemic.
Villages supported by the VSHSL
In 2020, eight organizations were funded by the VSHSL to create or enhance a Virtual Village, funded organizations include: Eritrean Association of Greater Seattle, Filipino Community of Seattle, Iraqi Community Center of WA, Khmer Community of Seattle, Northwest Neighbors Network, Somali Family Safety Task Force, Ukrainian Community Center of Washington and Vashon-Maury Senior Center. Below we are featuring three of the VSHSL-funded Virtual Villages.
Eritrean Elder Village
One organization funded by VSHSL, the Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle, a cultural group serving seniors of Eritrean origin, was well-positioned at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to build its Village by deploying existing services deeper into the Eritrean community to reach isolated Eritrean and Ethiopian elders. The association delivered healthy, culturally appropriate meals three days a week; helped elders make important connections with their native culture, including opportunities for them to connect online with others who speak their language and share common traditions and foods; shared information about resources, services and assistance programs available in the community and lead age-appropriate exercise programs to increase fitness. By adapting their Virtual Village programs during the pandemic the association increased the number of elders and the number of disabled and/or homebound elders connected to the village. For example, to facilitate food delivery to elders, the Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle recruited volunteers to help package food and paid Eritrean Tigrigna-speaking Uber drivers to make the deliveries in their community.
“Our village represents seniors, about 90% of whom could not read and/or speak English. Some of them live-in high-rise buildings, others in dispersed housing units. As seniors, they communicate with each other, ask of each other’s well-being and inform each other of new issues. Those who can read English help those who can’t by reading and interpreting messages or filling forms. When our drivers deliver food those who can walk collect the food and deliver it to those who have difficulty walking.” -Solomon Bisrat, Program Coordinator, Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle
Khmer Senior Village
Khmer Community of Seattle King County spent 2020 bringing a Virtual Villages program to life in a way that best serves the unique needs of the Khmer Community’s seniors. They developed the foundation for their programming, formalizing a village concept and structure that will enable them to offer connections for vulnerable Khmer elders. A key aspect of their program has been to recruit a pool of volunteers who engage seniors in the Cambodian community to assess their needs and strengths as village members. They established a central phone line to support volunteers in doing regular well-being checks with seniors. Volunteers also connected seniors with personal protective equipment, grocery delivery, social services, transportation and support applying for housing and disability benefits. Khmer Community of Seattle King County also loaned tablets to seniors, teaching seniors how to access the internet and social media, helping to build deeper connections among seniors and increase access to services.
“Our model aligns with the principles of the Virtual Village Model. It is all about the people, the connections and the relationships. How we use the head, the heart and the hands to build that connection and care for each other is important. Incorporating our youth group to bridge the intergenerational gap building the bond between the young and old using the elders’ talents and the youth’s tech savvy skills. We focus on humanity – the values that harmonize and enhance the arts of living and the spirit of HOPE.” -Thyda Ros, Executive Director, Khmer Community of Seattle King County
Russian Ukrainian Senior Villages
Russian Ukrainian Senior Villages program, run by the Ukrainian Community Center of Washington (UCCW), is a Virtual Village designed to meet the cultural and language needs of Russian and Ukrainian refugee and immigrant seniors. Its ethnic community-based approach uses the concept of community and belonging in order to reduce isolation and improve the health of seniors who are isolated due to language and other barriers.
In 2020, in order to connect to refugee and immigrant seniors in South King County, Virtual Village staff meet with seniors over the phone to conduct in depth personal assessments of each member of the village to help seniors address ongoing and emergent basic needs and understand COVID-19, the precautions to take and the state and county restrictions. The village helped seniors navigate available resources and services they could utilize during the pandemic.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, refugee and immigrant seniors have become even more isolated and anxious. They are often isolated and depressed due to their inability to speak English and lack of socialization and support. UCCW designed its village for refugee and immigrant seniors whose primary language is Russian or Ukrainian with the purpose of helping them and providing opportunities for socialization and connections to resources.” Oleg Pynda, Executive Director, Ukrainian Community Center of Washington
Learn more about the other VSHSL-funded Virtual Villages by visiting our awards database.
 More information about the village model can be found at the Village to Village Network site, a national organization of villages, at https://www.vtvnetwork.org/content.aspx?page_id=0&club_id=691012.