Resolute to evade a retirement center ending their days, elderly Washingtonians living in the shadow of Capitol Hill are co-operating in a village-like community to continue residing in their homes.
"I wouldn't want to be in a nursing home. I love my independence too much and doing what I want," said Ramon Gonzalez, a dapper blue-eyed and white-haired 86-year-old, who has trouble walking due to persistent knee pain.
But the idea of having to leave his home filled with art books and jazz records, reminders of his younger days, fills him with horror. And the former US Navy translator is attached to his neighborhood near the US Congress, with its charming Victorian homes and brick-paved streets.
He is a member of Capitol Hill Village, a non-profit neighborhood group launched in 2007. It is among 66 "villages" -- 120 are in planning -- spread across the United States and based on a model that started in Boston in 2001.
Largely dependent on volunteers, the group provides retirees with services like transportation, shopping, small repairs, often for free or at reduced prices.
Although the village does not provide medical care, it helps seniors keep living in the comfort of their own homes, said executive Katie McDonough, one of the group's only two full-time salaried workers.
The service costs $530 annually per person, $800 for households and just $100-200 for people with low incomes. Membership dues account for half of the budget, supplemented by donations.
The village, as it is known by its 360 members (including 260 households), also provides a 24/7 telephone answering service where seniors can ask for help from a pool of 215 volunteers from transportation to doctors, lawnmowing or filling out paperwork.
Conferences, theater outings, diners and gymnastic lessons are also on offer on a list detailed at the association's website capitolhillvillage.org, said Pamela Causer.
The 68-year-old former computer consultant, who helps answer the phones and has lived on Capitol Hill for 39 years, is one of many members who play a dual role as volunteers.
"I'm not a big participant with group things," she acknowledged, adding: "When you retire you can't just stay home, you have to have interaction with other people. That's the reason why I work with the office, I feel like giving something back."
Causer did live in a nursing home, for 20 days last year after getting knee surgery. But that's an experience she does not want to repeat in the long term.
"The big thing is to be able to stay in your own house," she said. "As people get older, they worry more and more about that, and they have more and more needs -- things you used to be able to do that you just can't do now."
Founding village member Judy Canning, 69, said it was very American to get organized in bottom-up fashion. "These days in America, you cannot count on government support for anything social," she added.
Canning acknowledged however that in times of major accidents or sickness, even Capitol Hill Village members are forced to leave their homes. But she stressed the group helps the elderly stay in their homes longer and even to die there.
That's a wish shared by more and more seniors as the country braces for some 78 million "baby boomers," born during the post-World War II baby boom, to enter retirement.
Candace Baldwin of the Village-to-Village Network that links the different community groups calls the challenge "monumental."
Starting in 2011 and for the next 20 years, 10,000 people will celebrate their 65th birthday each day, according to US Care. And in 2030, one out of every five Americans will be older than 65 and 21 million others -- four times more than today -- will be over 85.
"The village movement is a logical step in this evolution as it provides a way for older adults to 'age in the community,'" said Baldwin.