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Creating Your Own Retirement Community

Co-locating with friends is a growing trend to age in place

Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.

Deborah Stern, 58, a labor lawyer-turned-teacher, has a clear vision of her future. She and her husband, Earl Dotter, 72, are actively seeking a condominium development in which to move in downtown Silver Spring, Md. They’ll be able to walk to restaurants, movies and shops, which they can’t do from their single family home in a suburban neighborhood nearby.

Downsizing is not unusual. But Stern and her husband have added a twist. They will be joined by several long-time friends. “I would like a situation where we are basically under the same roof, but in separate residences,” she says.

(MORE: Transforming Life as We Age)

The idea may be catching on. According to a recent New York Times article, for example, friends of all ages are moving into the same condo or apartment building, including retirees from New Jersey who want a small space in the city.

Co-housing With Friends

The model can be an appealing alternative to house sharing, which some find a little too close for comfort, or co-housing, which has a more formal consensus decision-making structure.

(MORE: When Living with Strangers Makes Sense)

“We call ourselves co-housing without meetings,” says Rinda Bartley, 55, who lives with her partner and two other families in a house that was subdivided into separate apartments. She and her partner originally purchased the four-unit ramshackle duplex and garage in Berkeley, Calif. in 1993. Friends moved into two of the units, and her partner opened a day care center in the garage. Over time, the group renovated the property and formed a tenants-in-common agreement, allowing each family to purchase their own unit, which they call “the compound.”

The arrangement has worked beautifully, she says, even for Bartley, the introvert of the group. “It would not work for me to live in a commune or have common meals every day,” she says. “What’s nice about this is, I have my privacy. But I know I have a rock-solid set of people who’ve got my back.”

As the oldest member of the compound, Bartley assumes she may experience age-related ailments sooner than the others. Living near friends gives her peace of mind. “Whatever happens to me as I grow older, I feel I’ll be a loved and respected member of the community,” she says. “I can basically be who I am.”

The compound is the envy of their wider circle of friends, she adds, with another family moving in across the street to be as close to them as possible. “We call them the annex,” she says.

A System of Support

Across the country in Cambridge, Mass., another set of friends bought a 12-unit building in 1973 and, now that they’re in their 60s and 70s, they’re aging in place. When they first made the purchase, 10 transient tenants lived there and soon moved out; the other two remained for a few years. Over time, the owners converted the 12 units to eight, all owned by friends. They organized it as a housing cooperative dubbed Common Place.

(MORE: A Starter’s Guide for a ‘Golden Girls’ Home)

“We’ve built quite remarkable friendships over the years,” says Jim Stockard.

They’ve experienced births, weddings, divorces and deaths. One of the original friends got Alzheimer’s disease. She was able to stay there until her death, thanks to a devoted husband and the support of her Common Place friends.

When Stockard’s wife was being treated for breast cancer, she was exhausted during six months of radiation and chemotherapy. “To be brutally candid, I can’t cook,” says Stockard. “We’d starve down here. So dinner showed up at our house every night. It was what people knew they had to do.”

Similar relationships, of course, can be found in a close-knit neighborhood of any kind. But lacking that, moving to a building with friends can be a great way to create community.

Among the suggestions for successful co-locating:

Don’t expect everyone to be included in everything. People need to feel free to invite over just one other household, or to host a party that does not include the friends who share the premises. Privacy and boundaries are key and should be established from the start.

Take advantage of the proximity to share resources. In a sub-divided house, that can mean a shared backyard, a washer and dryer, or utilities and Wi-Fi. At the compound in Berkeley, each family had their own car, but the group shared a van for outings and vacations. In a larger condo or apartment building, it might mean sharing newspapers, occasionally used appliances or a cab ride to a sports event or theater.

Give each other a hand to make life easier. Also at the Berkeley compound, each of the six adults makes dinner one night a week for everyone else. They don’t eat together, but it greatly reduces the time spent in food preparation. Everything from letting in a repair person, getting a ride to the airport or helping with pet care can be managed easily with friends so close. If one person is providing considerably more labor, such as gardening or home maintenance, pay them.

Stern envisions as she and her husband grow older that the friends might also share the costs of housekeeping or even caregiving services. In that way, they could perhaps delay or even avoid having to move to a more institutional setting.

Beyond Sharing Costs

Mostly, though, it is the desire for deep friendship and support that motivates Stern. Having watched her mother grow old, she is realistic about potential challenges that lie ahead. “There are losses that sort of build up in old age,” she says, “the inability to drive, to get out.”

Her mother now is in assisted living, and she has grown increasingly dependent on Stern and her sister as her main source of friendship and comfort. For herself, Stern hopes to remain “as emotionally and socially independent as possible,” so her own children will enjoy spending time with her and not feel burdened by it.

Although her mother’s assisted living home is nice, says Stern, she would not want that for herself. “They have movies and card games, and if you’re lucky you might develop a warm feeling of having an acquaintance,” she says. “But you just can’t replace that bonded feeling, that comfort level, where you’ve seen your kids grow up, where you have history. When you lose that, that’s a huge loss, one of the hardest in old age.”

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