Feathering a Shared Nest
How three groups of seniors created their own alternative lifestyles
Victor Barnard, 72, is no hippie. As a career Air Force officer, he procured secret parts from enemy arsenals and manned a tail gun. But upon retirement five years ago, the former aerospace worker and his wife, Ruth, joined a communelike cluster of private homes near Boulder, Colo. They eat in the common dining room four times a week. Once every five weeks, they cook for their mostly vegetarian neighbors. And since the community bars garages--they hamper friendly discourse--the Barnards hike a block every time they need their car. "We think this will keep us healthy," says Ruth, 67. "The Sun City type of retirement was not for us."
The Barnards belong to a vanguard of similarly minded seniors exploring homier alternatives to golden-years ghettos or lonely isolation. Polls show that most older Americans want to remain in their communities when they retire, preferably in their own homes. Indeed, over 92 percent of those in the 55-and-older crowd stay where they are, notes Gopal Ahluwalia, research director at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. Yet only recently have architects and developers begun making it easier to "age in place." Many new homes, for example, now come with a first-floor master bedroom, one entrance without steps, doors that can accommodate a wheelchair--even elevator shafts.
Seniors no longer keen on keeping house alone are discovering innovative ways to keep house together. Some approaches, like prefabricated "granny flats" that provide separate quarters for a parent in the back yard, have limited appeal, given suburban zoning restrictions. Others, such as home sharing and the "co-housing" movement that attracted the Barnards, are beginning to blossom. Margaret Harmon of the National Shared Housing Resource Center (410-235-4454) estimates that some 350 programs nationwide now offer everything from roommate matches that pair elderly homeowners with single moms to dormlike group residences; thousands of inquiries pour into the center annually. With seniors slated to constitute one fifth of the U.S. population by the year 2030, cooperative living arrangements like these could become the norm:
Shared housing. Had church and civic leaders in tiny Rochester, Vt., not been determined to keep their old folks at home, Park House might have ended up like so many other New England white elephants: abandoned or torn down. Instead, the rambling former inn is home to 15 residents, ages 75 to 95, including 80-year-old Lucelia Bettis, who used to point across the road and vow, "They're never going to get me in there."
Yet, without Park House, Bettis would have ended up in a nursing home when a fall immobilized her two winters ago--not lunching on crab casserole with her housemate, Freda White. Residents eat together in the inn's cozy dining room, served by staffers who cook and mop up. They come and go and entertain guests as they please, sometimes gathering to assemble jigsaw puzzles in the sunny living room. At $650 a month for a room--some have private baths--plus all meals, Park House is "the bargain of a lifetime," says its proud manager, Judy Pierce.