retirement planningAs millions of baby boomers approach retirement, many are facing some harsh financial realities after the economic roller coaster of the previous several years. Many soon-to-be retirees have had to put their retirement planning efforts into overdrive in order to recover from recent economic turmoil and account for higher healthcare and living costs.

The National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry reports that the average entrance fee for a continuing-care retirement community is over a quarter of a million dollars (and that doesn’t include ongoing costs after you move into the community).

Even if they can afford this fee, many retirees simply don’t want to give up their homes or their independence to move into a retirement community or assisted living facility. According to a 2010 AARP survey, 96 percent of Americans over the age of 65 would like to continue living on their own as long as possible, rather than move into a retirement home or impose on friends or family.

These are just a few of the factors that have spurred the creation of virtual retirement villages across the country.

Virtual retirement villages allow seniors to age in place

For a fee, these grassroots communities typically provide older Americans with cultural activities; referrals to vetted providers, such as plumbers or hospice organizations; and a support system so they can continue aging at home.

Of course, the specific offerings vary based on member needs and input. “We have a saying: ‘If you’ve been to one village, you’ve been to one village’,” says Judy Kinney, executive director of a village called North East Seattle Together (or NEST), which launched in February 2012. “Each one is different and reflects where we are and the people who put it together.”

NEST has about 60 members, and it provides enrichment and wellness activities and services like yard work, rides, pet care, errands, and computer help through a network of volunteers.

The first of these villages, Beacon Hill Village, enrolled its original members from the Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill in January 2002 and now serves hundreds of members. “It helps all of us stay in our homes, engages us, and connects us with new friends, the neighborhood, the family—and gives us meaning,” says Beacon Hill Village’s founding executive director Judy Willett.

As the population ages, the popularity of virtual villages grows

Willett is now national director of the Village to Village Network, a national network that grew out of Beacon Hill Village and that advises other communities on creating their own villages.

There are currently 120 villages open around the world—three outside the United States—with about 25,000 total members. Some villages are in cities, but others serve more suburban or rural populations. Members range in age from under 50 (some villages are intergenerational) to over 100, but the average age is around 75, according to Willett.

“Life spans have been extending, and the definition of old age extends over more years now than it used to, so people can cope with some problems for a very long time without leaving their homes,” says Victor King McElheny, president of Cambridge at Home, a community McElheny and his wife Ruth helped found in 2007.

Cambridge at Home serves around 200 households in Cambridge, Belmont, Arlington, Somerville, and Watertown, Massachusetts. As of October 1, dues for the village are $1,300 a year for couples or $1,000 a year for singles, which includes access to exercise classes, grocery shopping rides, referrals to vetted suppliers (some with member discounts), and cultural events, such as trips to museums or music festivals.

“The aim is to enable elders to remain safely, affordably, and confidently at home as long as possible, rather than uproot them from familiar surroundings, friends, and activities to take up residence in a retirement community,” McElheny says. “It puts the home at their backs so that they are freer not only to enjoy themselves but [also] to be participating members of the larger community. That’s one of the huge benefits of these villages.”

NEST’s Kinney stresses that these villages exist to complement—not replace—any care or support members are already getting. “When someone joins, people have their kids and their families and their neighbors,” she says. “When they become a member of a village, they don’t lose those, they just bring someone new to their team. Their team is enriched and their life is enriched.”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelancer who has covered personal finance for numerous publications including Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, Learnvest.com, Mint.com, and USNews.com. Find out more at www.susan-johnston.com.