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.
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.
It took more than a year to track down a site everyone liked--and assemble the $200,000 purchase price. The group spent 18 months more coming to a consensus on the architectural details. Today, the partners' colorful, $600,000 "camp" sprouts from a redwood-shrouded meadow 100 miles north of San Francisco. Separate bedroom units abut a lodge with a communal living and dining area and a kitchen big enough for nine cooks. Each individual pays $600 a month to cover the mortgage, taxes and insurance, plus $2 for utilities each day that he or she is there.
How well the setup will function as a retirement retreat remains to be seen, since only Myers and her husband currently live there full time. The rest still work in the city and practice for their golden years on weekends and vacations. "All we can say is we're planning to do it," says Myers. So far, the dynamics seem to be working.
[Diagram is not available.] Be it ever so humble Many aging Americans want to remain in their own homes. Now, architects and builders are incorporating features to make that easier:
Master bedroom: Master bedroom on first floor
Bathroom: Reinforced walls for support bars in bath and shower. Faucets with levers. Hand-held shower for those in wheelchairs; antiscald devices. Support bars by toilet; phone jack in the bathroom. Knee room under the bathroom sink.
Living room: Light switches and thermostat controls lowered to 42 inches. Raised cable TV and telephone jacks.
Entrance ways: Levers to replace doorknobs, which are hard to turn. 36-inch doorways to accommodate wheelchairs. One entrance without steps.
Kitchen: Countertops that adjust in height. Lowered islands; rollout shelves. Side-by-side refrigerator. Front controls on stove; oven with door that opens to the side.
This story appears in the June 12, 1995 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.