Boomer Women Find Creative Community Solutions
By Neshama Abraham
With 65,000 people turning 60 every day, Boomer women are increasingly realizing that we don’t want to end up being alone—or worse—living our last years in a sterile nursing home or institution waiting for our lives to end.
There’s a much more interesting path we can create for ourselves concerning where and how we live. As we enter the last third of our lives many of us know ourselves and our unique gifts better than at any other point along our path. Now is the time to write the template for the next chapter as we wish it to unfold.
This article presents three main housing options you may wish to consider for personal privacy that also offers community and companionship: shared homes, cohousing neighborhoods, and transforming your existing neighborhood. I’ll discuss each option and the personal traits most needed to make you a “good fit” for each of these living choices.
Golden Girls-Like House
In a Golden Girls-like house (based on the NBC-TV sitcom of the same name) Boomer female friends live together under the same roof. Typically, each person has her own private bedroom (and possibly bathroom) while using a common kitchen, living and dining area.
You may have had a taste of sharing a dorm or house off-campus during college when you had roommates. In this new model, you have true “housemates” with a good bit of life experience under their belts.
The benefits of this shared living situation are many: companionship, laughs and fun times together, and the support of women at a similar point in life. Affordability is another advantage as housemates share the rent or mortgage and the cost of maintaining the house. (If you’re renting, larger expenses like a new roof or windows are the home owner’s responsibility.)
Marianne Kilkenny, 62, a six-year resident of Asheville, has lived in a Golden Girls-like house for the past few years. “After I put my parents into a nursing home several years ago, I knew I did not want to live alone anymore. I needed to create something different for myself that provided close connections with my housemates and where I had personal privacy and community,” said Kilkenny.
At the time, Marianne was living in Northern California. She knew about Asheville, North Carolina as a great place for retirement. Fueled by the disheartening experience of putting her parents into a nursing home, she left her stable 30-year career in Human Resources in Silicon Valley to relocate to Asheville in 2006 to start a new life.
Upon landing in Asheville, she realized that the best way to meet others interested in creating community was to form an organization in which Boomer women could connect with one another. She founded the Women for Living in Community Network, launched a website of the same name, formed an active Meet-Up group, sponsored local workshops and organized a successful Asheville conference at the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement (NCCCR). In 2010, she extended her efforts beyond North Carolina to other markets and offered a conference in Sarasota, Florida to help Boomer women there connect with others seeking housing that offered community.
Through her networking activities she met her future housemates. She brought together the married couple (a man and woman) who were already living in a large rental home in Asheville to meet the other future residents of the house. The group met several times, using a series of group process exercises to determine their compatibility. The document Marianne and her housemates used, the Blueprint of We (available on her website), was so valuable that they continue to use it on a regular basis as a communications tool.
The Asheville home Marianne resides in is large, and by sharing the cost of the rental, she and her housemates live in a more affordable home and neighborhood than any one of them could have done on their own.
Sharing a Home with Others
If you’re considering creating or joining a shared household, here are five personality traits to help you determine if you’re a good fit.
Enjoy Connecting with People: To successfully live with housemates, you need to enjoy spending time with others. Sharing a home requires lots of interaction—spontaneous and planned. It’s common to have housemates stop by your room or pop into the kitchen while you’re preparing a meal for a short or long conversation. It’s not that you need to be an extrovert, but it’s important to enjoy daily contact with housemates.
Like Living Close to Others: How do you feel being seen first thing in the morning in your nighties before you’ve had your first cup of coffee? Depending on the design of the home and the location of bedrooms and bathrooms, it’s likely you’ll be interacting with your housemates at various times throughout the day. Ask yourself, “How much privacy do I need?” Will you feel “surrounded” by housemates or will you appreciate the company of others when cooking and dining together?
Flexiblity: When considering sharing a home with other Boomer adults, it’s important to be flexible. People and circumstances change, sometimes with little advance notice. If you’re someone who can flow with the small and large changes in people’s lives— from lost keys to lost jobs—the better your chances of successfully living with others.
Willingness to Share: Living in a shared home, almost by definition, requires a higher level of sharing. It’s inevitable that items like kitchen tools, books and other personal items will end up being used (and sometimes broken) by housemates. Your comfort about sharing your possessions and stating clearly when you’re not willing to share something will contribute significantly to your success in this housing arrangement.
Strong Communication Skills: Many issues come up when you’re living in a “Golden Girls-like Home.” You’ll be dealing with agreements about community spaces, finances, guests, activities, pets, standards of cleanliness and more. Successfully navigating through all these conversations and making sound group decisions requires clearly expressing your personal preferences and hearing the needs of your housemates. If you have upset a housemate, keeping your feelings stuffed inside does not work. It’s best to discuss the situation within 24 to 48 hours. Likewise, there is great therapeutic benefit to clearing and repairing hard places that often make the relationship stronger.
The Cohousing Concept
If living in a house where you share a kitchen, living room and dining space is too close for your comfort, consider cohousing. In a cohousing community, residents own their own home and share common spaces and resources. These neighborhoods are created with input from the future residents who meet each other typically one to three years before moving in. Neighbors work together to make decisions about the physical design and social agreements of the neighborhood they will live in.
These collaborative neighborhoods, usually between 25 to 35 households, are home to more than 6,000 people in North America. One of the reasons cohousing is popular is because they provide a healthy balance between privacy and community. According to the Cohousing Association of the U.S., cohousing neighborhoods have six defining characteristics:
1. Participatory process
2. Design for community
3. Common facilities
4. Resident management
5. Shared leadership and decision-making
6. Residents do not share income.
North Carolina has six cohousing communities, including five completed neighborhoods, and two communities in development (please see box). This lifestyle offers many benefits for Boomers, including an intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive environment ideal for aging at home in a non-institutional setting.
Cohousing residents enjoy the privacy they need in their own home, with easy access to community in the common courtyard or in the neighborhood’s “Common House” where group dinners occur one to two times a week.
According to Carolyn Wallace, a founding resident in the Westwood Cohousing community in Asheville, “Living in cohousing enriches and simplifies my life. I have great neighbors, and I love sharing in the work of maintaining the community rather than taking care of a home all by myself. Living in this neighborhood allows me to contribute to living more sustainably as well as the opportunity to learn more skillful ways of communicating with others and working towards common goals. Much of the time it’s a lot of fun.”
Below are key characteristics for successfully living in cohousing.
Appreciate Meetings: Creating a cohousing neighborhood requires many meetings (from monthly to weekly depending on where the project is in the development stage). Are you willing to sit through and actively participate in the creation and running of a cohousing neighborhood? The collaborative nature of these neighborhoods encourages all participants to participate in the discussions.
Willing to Share Leadership: Because the decision making is an egalitarian process, residents make a large number of group decisions. Since cohousing groups do not have official leaders, it’s very helpful for members to share or rotate leadership roles. As with Golden Girls-like homes, having strong communication and group process skills can be very helpful when issues come up that require extensive discussion.
Comfortable Expressing Your Feelings: Since so many issues are discussed during the development stage of cohousing and after move-in, residents find that sharing personal feelings leads to self-discovery and open-heartedness in dealing with people who are different than you. A founding member of a cohousing community once described cohousing as “… the most expensive personal growth workshop you’ll ever take.”
Converting Traditional Neighborhoods
Finding a place where you can “age in community” is challenging especially if you love where you currently live and don’t want to move. A viable option for some is bringing more community into your existing neighborhood.
Since moving is not necessary for this community concept, you’ll have the advantage of staying in your home while you work towards transforming your existing neighborhood.
On the other hand, as compared to creating a shared home or a cohousing neighborhood, bringing community to an existing block can easily take the longest time. If you’re considering this approach, one of the most important characteristics you’ll require is patience. Transforming an existing neighborhood also requires a level of leadership unnecessary in the other two models where leadership is shared.
Here are ways to get started. First, you’ll need to identify current neighbors who are open to the idea and willing to participate. Next, you’ll need a way to draw them together to discuss the idea. This could be done by scheduling regular potlucks or a block party. Over time, a core group of people who like the idea of getting to know their neighbors and are wiling to move forward will emerge.
An excellent resource is Dave Wann’s book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods. This book offers valuable ideas for remaking suburban and urban neighborhoods. Dave shows how typical suburban neighborhoods fail to meet many of people’s needs and explains how to transform them to better serve people and reduce human impact on the environment.
Ideas range from a community bulletin board to a neighborhood newsletter for fostering more neighborhood identity and cooperation, to discussion groups, and babysitting co-ops, to removing backyard fences to create open park-like spaces for shared play areas and community gardens.
Since meals naturally bring people together, one way to transform your existing neighborhood is to take turns hosting meals in each others’ backyards. A next step is encouraging friends to purchase adjacent homes in the neighborhood. Eventually a home can be collectively purchased and converted into a shared dining and meeting area for everyone in the neighborhood to use.
For Marianne, it took six years and a circuitous path to find her ideal housing arrangement. To make the process easier and faster for others, she offers professional coaching and gives public workshops and talks. She will be giving a talk entitled “Who Will Leave the Lights on For You?” on Friday, Sept 14, 2012 from 7 to 8:30pm at the Earthfare West Community Room, 66 Westgate Parkway Asheville, NC 28806. For more info, contact email@example.com or (828)230-2093 where she lists free resources.
Women for Living in Community, organization dedicated to helping Boomer women find your ideal housing arrangement, lists free resources, hosts a weekly blog: womenforlivingincommunity.com.
Cohousing Association of the U.S., http://www.cohousing.org/
Fellowship for Intentional Communities, http://www.ic.org/
North Carolina Communities
Arcadia Cohousing Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 17 acres with 33 households
Earthaven Ecovillage Black Mountain, North Carolina, 320 acres with 56 homesites
Eno Commons Durham, North Carolina. 11 acres with 22 homes
Pacifica Carrboro, North Carolina, 8 acres with 46 households
Westwood Cohousing Asheville, North Carolina, 4 acres with 23 households
The Villages at Crest Mountain Asheville, North Carolina. Green neighborhood of 90 home sites (20 completed) being built in two phases on 35 acres.
Neshama Abraham is a freelance writer and 15-year founding resident of a cohousing community in Boulder, Colorado and long-time colleague of Marianne’s who has seen her passion and the transformation of others who live in a housing situation that offers community.