It's a fate that baby boomers and seniors seek to escape: moving
into a facility or in with their children. Even if they continue to
live at home, they want to avoid the loneliness their parents or
neighbors may have felt in their later years.
These older individuals are looking for a new way to live. They
still want to remain at home, but they long for a sense of
community--surrounded by caring people who watch out for each
other. And many seniors also realize that getting help with the
ordinary tasks--someone who can provide a ride to the doctor or
pick up an item at the grocery store--can go far to preserve their
So boomers, and many who are older, are redesigning how and
where to live as they age. "Until now, there were only traditional
retirement communities, the dreaded skilled nursing facilities,
moving in with our families or living alone," says Beth Baker, who
has visited dozens of housing models for her book,
With a Little Help From Our Friends: Creating Community As We
(Vanderbilt University Press, $25). "People have begun to realize
that if they're creative, there are a lot more interesting and
fulfilling ways they can choose to live." We've reviewed three
"aging in place" housing options.
Your Modern Commune
If you like the idea of spending a lot of time with your
neighbors, consider cohousing. Residents typically buy their
apartments or townhouses and jointly own outdoor space and a
"common house." There, residents can cook in a spacious kitchen and
share a meal together (or not) once a week, conduct meetings, play
board games, watch a video or exercise. Every common house has at
least one guest bedroom that could be used in the future by a
Usually, each of the 20 or so housing units has an inviting
front porch clustered around a central walking path or courtyard.
These outdoor spaces offer an opportunity for informal interaction
on the way to the mailbox or car, or perhaps a spontaneous
invitation to have a glass of wine at a neighbor's home.
Most of the 150 U.S. cohousing projects--100 more are in
development--are intergenerational, for young families, singles and
seniors. Six of the developments are "elder" or "senior" cohousing,
for those 50 and older.
In most cases, cohousing communities are started by prospective
residents, who often partner with a developer to design and finance
the project. A handful of communities have been founded by
architects and developers who then organize a group of future
residents to buy into a project. In either case, you can join at
any phase of the process, including after completion.
Cohousing communities use a condominium structure, with a
homeowners association and monthly dues. Residents make all the
rules and maintain the property. Its distinctive quality is the
level of community involvement. Owners are expected to show up for
monthly meetings and to volunteer for a committee or a regular
task, such as cleaning the common house, landscaping, building
maintenance or bookkeeping. These groups can hire services to do
California architect Kathryn McCamant has developed or consulted
on more than 50 communities. "This housing model is following the
changing demographics of the country, from the focus on raising
kids to aging in place," says McCamant, who, with her husband
Charles Durrett, brought the concept to the U.S. from Denmark in
the late 1980s.
Eva Mesmer, 75, and her husband, Gene, 81, originally moved from
Missouri to the Colorado mountains to be near their son, but found
the location too remote. In 2004, they joined Boulder's
intergenerational Wild Sage cohousing. "We're always busy doing
something," Eva says. The kids call Eva "Oma," which is German for
grandmother. "I'm everyone's grandmother. That's what keeps me
young," she says.
Sara Geber, 65, and her husband, Chuck, 63, prefer the
adults-only model. In April, they sold their four-bedroom,
three-level suburban home with a pool and bought a $1.1 million,
1,750-square-foot, one-level condo at Silicon Valley's Mountain
View Community Cohousing, in Mountain View, Cal.
When the community opens in September, residents in their early
fifties to their eighties will live in 19 units in two three-story
buildings. They will be just a few blocks from top-notch theater,
restaurants and high-speed trains to San Francisco and San Jose.
"The whole idea of cohousing is that you become not just a
geographic community, but an intentional community--more in the
old-fashioned sense, where people look after one another," says
Geber, who has no children.
When Eva Mesmer's cancer returned last year, one neighbor gave
her a footbath with rose petals. Another created a Web site for
volunteers to help. And when her husband injured himself falling
off his bike, neighbors built the couple a ramp.
Before Mike Contino left the hospital after knee surgery,
"nurses were questioning me as to whether I had people to help out
when I got home. I had to laugh--about 45 people," says Contino,
who lives at Wolf Creek Lodge, in Grass Valley, Cal. Neighbors
helped Contino, 69, with shopping and errands.
But cohousing is not a substitute for long-term care. If
residents can't hire professional care or have serious cognitive
impairment, they may have to move. Even so, McCamant, who lives in
cohousing in Nevada City, Cal., says, "Once people get to know each
other they tend to do more than they thought they would."
Some may find cohousing confining, however. You have privacy in
your own home, but your life is deeply intertwined with others. If
you don't want to get to know your neighbors, pitch in and make all
decisions by consensus, cohousing is not for you.
Cohousing homes generally range in price from $200,000 to
$600,000, although a one-bedroom home in Stillwater, Okla., is
$150,000, and units at California's Mountain View and Boulder's
senior-only Silver Sage (across the street from Wild Sage) can
reach $1.5 million. Ten percent of projects allow renting, so that
might be a good way to test-drive this lifestyle.
To find communities, go to the Web site of the Cohousing
Association of the United States at
. You can find resources to start your own cohousing group at the
Home Sweet Home Sharing
Home sharing, where you have your own bedroom and bathroom and
share the kitchen and other space, is no longer just a
TV show. Boomers and seniors, often women, are finding that having
housemates makes real-life sense. By pooling financial resources,
you can save money on upkeep and utilities. You'll also have
companionship and feel safer.
You might move into someone else's house, have them move into
yours, or rent or buy together. Some are buying a share of another
person's house or condo. If you don't need the extra money, you
could offer a room in your home in exchange for services, such as
caregiving or running errands.
Divorced after 25 years of marriage, Connie Woodberry found
herself alone in her four-bedroom, Dummerston, Vt., house. Then she
learned of a professor at a nearby college who needed a place to
live. That was seven years ago.
Her housemate pays $500 a month, which Woodberry, 67, uses for
taxes. She has built a porch and installed solar panels, projects
she could not have done without the extra money. "This is far more
than just having someone live in your house," says Woodberry, who
has two grown children. "We're good friends." The women eat dinner
together most nights.
For organizations that match housemates, check the National
Shared Housing Resource Center Web site at
. The site lists programs and consultants by state.
Take care when choosing a housemate. For example, if you're a
quiet neatnik who goes to bed early, you probably don't want a
messy night owl who loves to party at home.
You should set specific house rules and put them in writing. The
rules could cover such issues as smoking, overnight guests, pets
and use of the common rooms. Meet in person unless the prospective
home sharer lives far away--you could then use Skype or FaceTime.
Check references, and make sure the person pays his or her share
before moving in.
A variation on the home-sharing theme is "cohouseholding," where
unrelated people, often friends, own or rent one house together. In
2010, Oz Ragland, a former Microsoft manager, and his wife bought a
$680,000 house on 1.3 acres in Bothell, Wash., outside Seattle,
with people they knew: another married couple and a single woman,
then ages 54 to 71.
The housemates formed a limited liability corporation to own and
operate the property. The residents pay rent to the LLC, which pays
for taxes, utilities and maintenance. The five residents own
different percentages of the LLC. Some cohouseholds choose instead
to have all of the owners' names on the deed and mortgage. Hire a
lawyer to work out the ownership details.
Co-owners need to decide what happens if one wants out. In the
Ragland cohousehold, that person gives notice, and all the owners
try to agree on how much money the departing member receives. If
they can't agree, an appraisal sets the overall market price and
that person receives his or her share--either immediately or over
five years with interest.
One reason it works well: The house has a lot of private space
for each couple or person. "I couldn't possibly own a house like
this by myself--and with no mortgage," says Ragland, who is a
founder of this cooperative housing movement. For details, go to
the Web site of the Cohouseholding Project at
Also on the horizon: friends living in the same building or next
door but not under one roof. Within 10 to 15 years, Ruth Margolis,
an Atlanta software industry analyst, and her husband, James,
expect to rent in the same building or next door to a couple from
North Carolina, as well as a couple and a divorced friend from
Florida. These days, "we travel together, visit one another and are
a bit miserable when we're not together. It's lovely to be planning
for a time when we can all be together," Margolis says.
They have not chosen their destination city, but are considering
several cities in the South. They all have long-term-care
insurance, but if anyone needs professional care, "we will help
each other with caregiving as we have in the past for other
health-related issues," Margolis says.
The "village" model provides a way to stay in your home while
getting support from your neighbors. You can either join a
membership organization in your geographic area or create your own
village with neighbors.
Consider it one-stop shopping with a personal touch: You call a
central number where paid staff or volunteers handle your requests.
The staff could provide names of vetted and discounted service
providers, such as home health care agencies or plumbers. Or, more
often, it will arrange help from volunteers, such as someone to
walk a dog, take a resident to a doctor or even change a light
The villages also create opportunities to socialize with other
members, whether it's an organized dinner or a trip to the museum.
Some larger villages arrange overseas travel. Yearly fees average
$400 for an individual and $650 for a household.
There's an intergenerational benefit, too. The high school
student down the street may provide computer tutoring to an older
neighbor. A senior also could volunteer--perhaps a retired
accountant could help with a neighbor's taxes. Older village
members who volunteer or who receive help from volunteers are less
likely to feel isolated.
Indeed, the villages' benefits extend beyond help with an errand
or two. Andrew Scharlach, professor of aging at the School of
Social Welfare at University of California, Berkeley, has conducted
four surveys of villages. "There is preliminary evidence that
members use the hospital less often than they did before they
joined the village," he says. He also says that residents "report
that they're more confident about their ability to age in place
because of the membership."
Residents in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston started the
first village in 2002. Since then, 144 villages have opened
nationwide, with another 115 in development in cities, suburbs and
Nearly three years ago, Gloria Gordon, 91, a former psychologist
and book editor, hatched the idea of starting a village with three
friends in their St. Louis neighborhood. They bought a how-to
manual put out by the Beacon Hill Village and visited a village in
Chicago before launching STL Village in June, for residents 50 and
older. It hired a part-time executive director.
Gordon lives in a high-rise, while some members are in
single-family homes. Her children live in New York City and Boston.
"Joining the village gives me a sense of support and security about
the future," Gordon says. "It also lets my children feel okay about
having a 90-year-old mom living independently a thousand miles
To find a village near you, or to start one, contact the
Village-to-Village network (
). You could order a manual from the Beacon Hill Village (