Aging once offered few options to older adults choosing living arrangements. We’ve come a long way from the stark and difficult choice between home and impersonal institutional settings.
The expression aging in place has long been a rallying cry promoting independence among older adults. Studies show that 85% of elders aged 65 and older prefer to stay in their homes as they age. However, many people mistakenly believe institutional care to be their only residential alternative. Making a choice between toughing it out in their own homes or shuffling down a drab hallway to face fruit cups and mystery meat is an easy one.
Yet growing old in one’s home may not be the safest, most socially conducive, or cost-effective housing choice. An increasing number of developers and gerontologists recognize aging as part of a community as a compelling new way to help older adults remain independent and emotionally fulfilled.
“After World War II, the idea of aging in place became everything that being put into a nursing home was not,” says William Thomas, MD, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Erickson School and the founder of The Eden Alternative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to deinstitutionalizing nursing homes. “We believed that it was the miracle solution to healthy aging, but living alone with no family nearby can be a really difficult thing to do even though conventional wisdom says it’s what’s best.”
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While communal housing for older adults is relatively new, intergenerational communities have been around since 1991, with about 5,000 people living in close to 85 cohousing units across the country. These neighborhoods are generally made up of about 40 households per community with older cohousing neighborhoods running a bit smaller.
Janice Blanchard, former director of the Denver Office on Aging, believes that cohousing communities resonate for many baby boomers, given that many left their parental homes to live together, sometimes with a lover, often with friends, delaying marriage and childbearing for years.
“Living in community is not a radical idea. In fact, it is our natural state,” Blanchard says. “Homo sapiens, like our ancestors before us, are a tribal, communal animal; it is unnatural as a species for humans to live alone.”
Laura Beck lives in EcoVillage at Ithaca, a cohousing community located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. As a program director for Eden at Home, part of William Thomas’ nonprofit, Beck delivers educational seminars to improve quality of life for care partner teams. She has also written extensively on cohousing and aging in community.
“Cohousing is a model where people come together intentionally and go through a shared-intention living process. It’s not a commune; people own their own homes,” Beck says. “There is shared infrastructure including a common house within each neighborhood. Everybody owns a piece of it; it is an extension of our homes.”
Beck describes a pedestrian environment in which cars are kept away from the center of the neighborhood that is “very intergenerational,” with ages ranging from newborns to people in their mid-80s. Decisions that involve the shared infrastructure are made by consensus. “This is a great opportunity to see how the intergenerational dynamic plays out, watching children create relationships with elders that are not their own grandparents,” she says. “They can learn from each other, and it happens organically every day.”
Beck writes about the strong sense of ownership that residents develop through community building. Unlike developer-driven projects or NORCs, cohousing residents design a locality that reflects their needs. The process takes about two and a half to three years to complete and involves building relationships with neighbors long before the physical land exists. Developers may guide the planning process but the community’s mission and character, according to Beck, are in the hands of the residents.
Changing Choices — Aging in Place in the 21st Century
By Athan G. Bezaitis, MA
Vol. 1 No. 3 P. 30