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NORCs / Villages – What's the DIF?: Intentionality

by Louis on November 11, 2009

NORCs and Villages are both hot topics. What is the difference? How do they relate?

NORC, Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, just happens. People move to an area, grow older and the result is a NORC. A Washington, D.C. example is upper Connecticut Avenue. The apartment rich area and surrounding neighborhoods became popular as the area population expanded. Many residents are of similar age. Years go by, people do not move out. It’s a NORC. Some planned communities and even suburban areas will become NORCs as well. The homes are occupied in fairly tight time frames by fairly tight age cohorts. Time goes by and a NORC results. You might say it happens by default.

From different points of view a NORC is either a homogeneous community where support can be offered efficiently or a super concentration of need that is hell to service. This reflects either a ‘take the bull by the horns’, progressive policy or ‘head in the sand’ avoidance. Similarly, smart business leaders can find a concentration of clients through good service and word of mouth marketing.

Starting in the mid 80’s pro-active efforts to provide community services to NORC concentrated populations have demonstrated real success in making people more comfortable, more engaged socially, getting healthcare and others services to residents more efficiently and generally improving the lifestyle of older Americans living in NORCS. Starting as limited demonstrations a host of successful community assessment techniques, service ideas, methods and organizing systems have emerged. One example is The Advantage Initiative. NORC programs are positive support for successful Aging in Place. (Unfortunately some confusion has developed: People refer to both the naturally occurring community and the service program as “a NORC”).

Along comes Villages. Based on the incredibly successful and exciting Beacon Hill Village in Boston the concept is sweeping the nation. No fewer than five are open in DC alone. People trying to find an easy way to describe the Village concept compare it to concierge services for older residents. But Villages are growing and elderly concierge services struggle, so that is not right. What is the difference? The difference between NORCs and Villages is the seed.

Intentionality. Beacon Hill Village is a grass roots organization. The residents started it themselves. NORCs occur by default. The impetus was not helpful, paternalistic or opportunistic on the part of local government agencies or well meaning social workers. It was self responsibilityPlanning and direction is democratic. Beacon Hill has not shied away from using the best consultants, service providers and management. That is smart. That contributes to success. It does not change the foundation. They do it themselves.

The ‘village concept’ has also been adopted by service organizations but they feel different. It is a ‘program’ not a movement. The goals may be similar but the difference is palpable.

When we speak of independence we talk about choice, dignity, respect, control, self-empowerment. Those values are at the base of the successful village concept. These may be intangibles but they matter deeply to individuals and communities alike.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyndl November 11, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Yes I agree that dignity is at the
very core of the Villages sucess. We all want to age gracefully and
with dignity. This might be intangible but it is how we all look at life, either young or old.

We would all be wise to incorporate
many of the same design elements they have into every home. Then one would never have to think for leaving the places where perhaps a lift time has been spent.


Beth November 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm

It is important to understand the difference between a NORC and a Village. I think the intentionality definition hits the mark perfectly.

However, as one of those "well meaning social workers" who has spent years working with and for multiple social service agencies, I reject the generality of the comment. Many social service agencies work sincerely to leverage their fiscal and professional resources to serve older adults living in NORCs and will probably one day reach out to villages. Sure there are probably some out there who can be called "opportunistic," however I would venture to say not all. What may look opportunistic from the outside, is perhaps just a function of the definition.


Steve Gurney November 12, 2009 at 1:24 am

Great points! I hope that someday that people of all ages will live in communities that embrace the systems that NORCs and Villages are offering.


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