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Redefining The Transition To Retirement And Beyond

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Karl Schwengel is grateful to have the someone help take care of him without having to abandon his house for a nursing home.
Jessica Gould
Karl Schwengel is grateful to have the someone help take care of him without having to abandon his house for a nursing home.

Across the D.C. Metro region, seniors are creating new community-based networks to help them stay in their homes and out of nursing homes as they age.

Karl Schwengel, 80, of Capitol Hill is one such senior. More than a decade ago, Schwengel was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Complications from his radiation treatment, paired with disc problems, made it impossible for him to walk. Before long, daily chores started taking their toll on his body and his spirit.

“Every time I went to the grocery I said, ‘I can’t do this another week. The pain is killing me,’” recalls Schwengel.

Even so, he didn’t want to leave his home, where he has lived for more than 40 years. He says he had put too much blood, sweat and tears into the house to leave now.

Villages offer seniors freedom

So he contacted Capitol Hill Village, which helps seniors age in place. The movement began a decade ago in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. Now there are hundreds of so-called Villages across the country, and at least a dozen in the D.C. area. 

Every Village is different, but they tend to follow a similar structure. Members pay a fee to belong and Villages often hire an executive director to coordinate activities. Vetted vendors and volunteers assist with everything from groceries to trips to the doctor. 

Jan Riggs is one of the volunteers. Every week, Riggs unlocks the door to Schwengel’s Capitol Hill home and lets herself in. As a volunteer, she’s done everything from walking dogs to taking cats to the vet, but most of the time, she says, she and Schwengel just talk.

“We chitchat about out past,” Riggs says. “Last Saturday, we were discussing recipes. You were discussing your short ribs you cooked. And I went home and got a pot roast and crock potted that on Sunday. So you inspired me to do some cooking.”

Schwengel says he cherishes his visits with Riggs. He loves talking to her, and he loves that the Village enables him to continue his life as he wants to -- outside of a nursing home.

Values that define a generation

Lynn Feinberg, a care specialist for the AARP, says many of the organization's members feel the same way: “It's probably one of the most important values held by people as they get older is to remain in their community as long as they possibly can.”

She says Villages are allowing seniors to maintain their cherished independence in an era when families live farther apart than ever.

Dupont Circle Village president Peggy Simpson calls it activist aging for a generation best known for changing the status quo.

“From the women’s political movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the LGBT movement, you are about creating independence and more space,” says Simpson. “You’re about retaining your own ability to make decisions and live where you find it interesting.”

It just takes a village.

[Music: "Young at Heart" by 101 Strings Orchestra from 101 Strings Plays Frank Sinatra]

Photos: Redefining the transition to retirement

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