Feathering a Shared Nest
How three groups of seniors created their own alternative lifestyles
Only the relatively hale can take advantage of such deals, however. Park House residents can bring in home-health aides to administer medication or help with bathing, for example, but an impairing stroke or other serious malady generally means a move. Many group residences will spell out in a written agreement what sorts of medical conditions will mean the boot. It also is important to investigate such unwritten details as kitchen privileges and how conflicts get resolved. The American Association of Retired Persons (800-424-3410, 202-434-2277 for the D.C. area) and shared-housing center jointly publish a booklet with useful questions and a model lease.
Despite its benefits, shared housing has yet to serve more than a fraction of America's 33 million seniors. One reason is cost. Rochester civic leaders had to raise $800,000 to buy and renovate Park House; its operations consume up to $7,000 a month. But the No. 1 reason demand outstrips supply is zoning. "It's the old NIMBY problem--not in my back yard," says David Engel, director of affordable housing research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. To cement community relations, Park House opened its doors for wedding receptions, brown-bag lectures and piano recitals. Nationwide, the shared-housing movement could get a boost from last month's Supreme Court decision overturning local zoning laws used to bar group homes.
Co-housing. So far, this Danish invention has attracted mostly young families seeking old-fashioned community, but its features have obvious appeal for the elderly. Private homes are centered on a common lodge with kitchen, dining hall, play area and meeting rooms, and neighbors share in duties ranging from groundskeeping to grocery shopping. Someone is always around to look in on an older resident or lend a hand with storm windows; parents help each other mind the kids. According to architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett of the CoHousing Company in Berkeley, Calif., some 15 communities now exist nationwide--the first sprang up four years ago--with six more under construction and 150 being planned.
The hurdles can prove substantial, as the Barnards learned. It took more than two years of jawboning among partners and with contractors, local officials and bankers before the 42-home Nyland CoHousing Community opened its doors. Future neighbors pooled resources to buy the property, then spent hours hammering out the details of their arrangement. (Should yards be fenced? The vote was no.) Each family then shopped for a mortgage to cover its own dwelling. Today, the Barnards own a share of some 31 acres of meadowland, as well as the deed to an 1,800-square-foot, split-level two-bedroom "coho." Ruth notes that property values have soared--as much as $25,000 on their $100,000 home--since the pair moved in two years ago. Her one complaint: She must go elsewhere to commune with companions her own age.
Do-it-yourself visionaries. It was the desire to retire among friends some day that prompted California writer Jill Myers, 64, to pool her money with four child-rearing and bridge buddies in 1987 to build their own retirement co-op. The process might have defeated a less well-knit group. (The women had run a cooperative nursery school together in the 1960s, and their friendship had withstood divorce, death and remarriage.) To keep personalities from colliding, a lawyer helped the partners--by then 11 professionals, including a doctor and several teachers--draw up a comprehensive agreement covering such matters as finances and maintenance.