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When Mary Flournoy, now 67, retired from her job as a librarian in 2011, she was hardly ready to move to a retirement home and spend the rest of her days in a rocking chair.

Living in East Falls, a neighborhood in western Philadelphia, she had all of the City of Brotherly Love's cultural offerings at her doorstep -- or a short train ride away. Plus, she wanted to stay in the home she'd lived in since 1986.

So Flournoy was intrigued when she heard that East Falls was starting a "virtual retirement community." The organization -- East Falls Village -- offered many of the amenities available at a real retirement home, such as regular dinners together, cultural outings and ride services, but allowed residents to stay where they lived. Excited by the possibilities, she signed up, paying her $125 in annual dues to join more than 150 other residents who'd already made the same choice.

The notion of virtual retirement communities, known as "villages," started with one group of seniors in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston in 2001. Since then, the concept has exploded. Currently, there are more than 100 villages in nearly 40 states. Some of these villages cover single neighborhoods, like East Falls Village in Philadelphia. Others span larger areas, such as NEST Seattle, which includes 14 neighborhoods in northeast Seattle. And village membership appears to be growing. The median number of members in a given community increased from 72 in 2011 to 96 last year, according to a 2012 study of virtual retirement communities by Rutgers University.

"Studies have shown that a vast majority of older adults want to remain living in their homes, in their communities as they age. This is where they raised their children, where their friends are, where they know their pharmacist and doctor, and like the restaurants, stores and culture of their community. No one wants to have to leave that," says Natalie Galucia, member services coordinator of the Village to Village Network, which was started by the Beacon Hill Village as a resource for other virtual retirement communities.

So are virtual retirement communities the future of retirement?

How virtual retirement communities work

Each village differs based on the personalities of the people involved. Here's how a 2006 article in The New York Times described the founders of the first virtual retirement community, Beacon Hill Village:

"They all wanted to remain at home, even after transportation and household chores became difficult or dangerous, the point at which many older people quit familiar surroundings. They also wanted to avoid dependence on adult children.

They were unwilling to be herded by developers into cookie-cutter senior housing and told what to do and when to do it by social workers half their age. They had no intention of giving up the Brahms Requiem at St. Paul's Chapel for a singalong at the old folks' home, or high tea at the Ritz-Carlton for lukewarm decaf in the 'country kitchens' that are ubiquitous in retirement communities."

Each virtual retirement community varies depending on the people involved, but they share some common traits:

They offer a list of preferred service providers for residents. That makes it easy for residents to hire any vendor, from an arborist to a window washer, knowing they have been vetted by the community. Nearly a quarter of village members need help with household chores, and about 14% require assistance for personal care, the Rutgers study finds.

They run transportation networks. Rides are provided by either volunteers or by senior services programs from local governments. Access to reliable transportation helps residents travel to the doctor, hairdresser or grocery store as needed.

They sponsor social events. For example, at NEST Seattle, the village organizes weekly potluck dinners, outings to plays and movies, and even workshops ranging from the practical (navigating medical insurance as you age) to the intellectual (recently the State of Washington's poet laureate did a writing workshop for residents).

Village events are tailored to the tastes of the community. East Falls Village residents crave social interaction, but don't want to be limited to playing mahjong or bingo. One of Flournoy's neighbors is a former docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and arranged behind-the-scenes tours of the museum for village residents. The group also goes on walking tours of nearby neighborhoods and takes yoga classes together. "Thirty years ago, you never would have had a yoga class for people in their sixties and seventies," Flournoy says.

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