Monday, September 27, 2010

Aging: Some Thoughts on Architecture, Place and Community

I'm your basic romantic type, and that extends to architecture and shelter. As I entered my 50s, I told my friends that I wanted to grow old living in the country in a teepee, dome or rustic cabin. Simondale, the beautiful (also inexpensively built, low impact) hobbit house in Wales shown in this photograph is my idea of a truly marvelous dwelling.

I've never lived in a teepee, but have enjoyed being at home in both dome and rustic cabin. My friend Mouna Wilson lives in a wonderful dome in the Colestine Valley where I myself lived in a rustic cabin for many years. I wish I had taken a photo or two of her place when I was there last week, as the full moon made its way across the sky window at top of the dome. I'll have to do that and post it here soon.

Right now, after happily living alone in Ashland for the past 13 years, I am sharing a place (still in town) with my friend Louise Pare. Louise and I get along well and it's been a good experience in terms of social engagement and affordability. But I have to admit, the impulse for country living is still strong in me.

Living alone or in community is a subject that I've been musing about quite a bit lately. According to the 2000 census, 30% of older Americans live alone and the percentage rises with age. It affects women more because they live longer than men, so for example, 57% of women 85 or older live alone. Poverty increases the impact for many elders who live alone.

Social isolation is a specter for many older people. You don't need scientific studies to know that the kind of severe social isolation that many elders live with is not good for your health, mental or physical. It makes sense to engineer a life that is socially engaged, and home is one place we can do that.

Because our aging population is increasing so quickly, there is a scramble to invent new ways to live in the later years. Buzz words include aging in place and aging in community. Most people want to live where they are planted or if they choose a new community place they want to be engaged with others.

(Being an educated person, you probably already know that only 5% of elders live in nursing homes.) Most of the over 60 population lives in their own homes or live with family or in elder co-housing, elder house share, the village movement and continuing care retirement communities, among others. The New York Times ran an informative article titled Living Together, Aging Together. Author Paula Span reported on several cohousing developments in California, Colorado and Virginia. I found both of these articles fascinating. It's great to see elders developing community together this way.

Co-housing options appeal to those who have sufficient retirement income. The ElderSpirit community in Abington, Virginia is the only one I've heard of that has included rentals for elders on fixed income in their model. These units are funded by federal housing money. I wish more co-housing groups would include options for low-income rentals. Not all elders can afford to buy into elder co-housing.

I found some interesting information on shared housing and home share options for lower-income elders. Increasingly, state and local agencies are investigating how to create affordable, community-based housing options. The National Shared Housing organization is a clearinghouse of information.

I am looking forward to meeting Raines Cohen, who contributed to the book Audacious Aging, and who with his partner Betsy maintains a website Aging in Community. Check it out for much more information on elder cohousing, village networks,ecovillages, intentional community and more.

What is your take on elder living arrangements--do you favor living alone or in community?


  1. Hi, Gaea!

    I too am looking for reasonable housing options specifically for people at risk for long term care. I am concerned that our generation will bankrupt society if we don't figure out how we will deal with these issues.

    We already know what is possible, and a form of the co housing movement may be just what we need to end long term care as we know it. There are a few, as someone wrote about an idea I had for long term care, that some people will not accept a shared responsibility housing option. That's true, and the Green House ( is the most compassionate option for those people.

    For the rest of us, should we be shuttling the unfortunate 5% into traditional long term care, where they lose their dignity and social contacts, or attempt to realistically find an option that works?

    We can with proper tools, people and planning. We should.

    Co housing may be such an answer... obviously, things can be shared. I like your thoughts on reserving a rental setup for these types of community...

  2. Gaea, I'm looking forward to meeting you as well. I'm working with some people with extensive experience in Elder Services that we've trained in the "Successful Aging"/study group series that has helped many in Denmark tackle the difficult topics related to aging and become a part of cohousing and other communities - including affordable options. There are also new initiatives here in the US, including a Bay Area town that now features both rental and homeowner affordable cohousing neighborhoods that opened last year. It still remains largely a self-help model, in which future neighbors invest together to co-create community, but with the right partnerships with developers and government agencies we can expand the range and diversify the model.

  3. I grew up in the country and am not sure how happy I would be living in the city but I look at the future and wonder how long living so far out will work. When I look at other rural property, and I do sometimes in places like John Day, Oregon, I try to be realistic about how far from town and what kind of doctors would be available. It's hard to be practical and a dreamer. The dreamer part of me would like to live in the wilderness in a cabin. The realistic part says and for how long would you be able to do that?

  4. This is a timely article as our aging population continues to increase. I myself am 70 and have lived in a private environment in a country setting for three years -- alone with two big dogs I have overcome many fears that one associates with country living. I participate in the community by driving. I do not have access to public transportation.I realize there are two factors that stare down on seniors -- they are 1) the ability to keep driving and 2) sad to say the loss of friends due to moving away to be near children or from passing. This can leave many seniors in isolation. Long time friends are a healthy part of lliving. But, independent senior housing can be a nice alternative to staying in their home or in their same community. Independent living allows just that -- independence -- but also they have persons of the same age surrounding them --it alleviates isolation. They can still do communtiry service such as working with children etc. or participate in community events while still having a core community within the senior community. Choosing independent living should be the same as deciding what type of community you would like if you were purchasing a house such as what amenities would you want nearby.I thank you for the great links you provided on your post. It was an excellent post. -- barbara

  5. As we age, isn't the ability of caring family to be nearby also a part any plan we may form (ie. a senior co-housing cooperative next to a multi-generational co-housing cooperative)? Obviously if family does better halfway around the world, expecting us to move near them isn't feasible unless we are willing, but as they age, it seems having something we have built for the future would be important to us.

  6. I, too, have thought living in less populated areas was highly desirable, but so much depends on transportation, proximity to services needed, upkeep requirements of where you live and the area surrounding your abode. Can you do all the work? Can you afford to hire someone to do it? Is there even anyone available to hire? I've lived in various "rural" type settings including one near a lake, and know what that can mean, especially for a person alone.

    I've served several upscale retirement communities that offer complete level of care from independent to skilled nursing. One I continue with, since I only work part time now, is in the process of adding the Green House concept. It's been interesting to hear the views of residents already living in the community.

    I've concluded that the choice of what environment in which to live as we age is exceedingly highly individual. Each person really needs to know themselves, what their risk tolerance is, how important the peace of mind with security is to them just for starters. Obviously health and financial situation are significant influencing factors.

    I've long said I wanted to remain living in my home. Presently, I'm doing so. I also recognize life is unpredictable, so circumstances could arise totally altering my plan.

    As for family nearby, I have none, yet my children are close, partially thanks to all this digital technology. So far, I've declined to live near them or with them. Certainly my living friend situation has changed considerably. I share my long deceased mother's view that I choose to enjoy and be friends with people of all ages and do not wish to be in a strictly "senior" community setting.

    Interesting blog you have here I found at TGB.

  7. Thank you all for your lively and insightful comments. I appreciate them and look forward to talking more about community, place, shelter and housing.