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.
Beth Baker has seen the future of retirement communities and it doesn’t look anything like Leisure Village.
After traveling around the country to learn about new, experimental retirement living arrangements for her fascinating new book, With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community As We Grow Older, Baker, 62, says the accent is on “community.”
By that, the Takoma Park, Md. journalist is talking about options where retirees remain independent throughout their lives while having connections to others. For example:
Co-housing Residents live in apartments or houses and share common spaces for group meals and gatherings
Niche retirement communities Developments created for people who share a common identity such as sexual orientation, labor union membership, artistic inclination or religious faith
NORCs (Naturally Occuring Retirement Communities) Neighborhoods or locales with a significant portion of older people who’ve aged in place
Shared housing Where two or more unrelated retirees live together for lower costs and companionship; sometimes called “The Golden Girls” housing (from the hit TV show)
The Village Model Baker describes The Villages as a “neighbors-helping-neighbors” membership group dedicated to helping people age in place, with paid staff and volunteers assisting them.
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I recently interviewed Baker about her book’s findings. Highlights:
Next Avenue: Why did you write this book?
Baker: I started to see news articles about The Village Model and then I looked around and realized I had friends who moved into co-housing or had begun to live with a friend and share a house. So I felt it was an emerging trend that’s grappling with some pretty profound issues that can really make our lives better as we grow older.
Were you surprised how many nontraditional retirement living arrangements you found?
I was. And I keep hearing of different ones. What I liked about it is that it’s so grassrootsy, something an individual or bunch of neighbors could actually accomplish on their own.
In the past, with traditional retirement communities, people were dependent on a company or nonprofit to create them. That traditional model was much more top-down. I don’t want to come across as bashing those communities, because I know people who have moved there and are happy.
But I think many people don’t like the feeling of being isolated from the broader community. They don’t like the idea of being around only older people.
Do you think we’re seeing these kinds of communities because they’re a reflection of the baby boom generation and their views of retirement?
I’ve thought a lot about this. I think what we want is very much what our parents wanted. What’s different is I feel like we have more confidence and more of a history of making change happen. So it’s not that the desires have shifted; it’s that I think we are — as a generation — more proactive, willing to shake things up and proud of that.
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Tell me about the Senior Artists Colonies.
They were started by this visionary named Tim Carpenter. He wanted to have a community where people were bound by a common interest in the arts and had affordable housing. The Senior Artist Colony I saw in Burbank, Calif. is filled with studios for painting, pottery and film production. And the people I met there have just blossomed.
The other cool thing is it’s next door to a high school for at-risk youth and they’ve all gotten together and created this huge garden with fruit trees.
You say that Generations of Hope was the most inspiring community you saw. Why?
It was started by this amazing woman, Brenda Eheart, in Rantoul, Ill. She had worked in the foster care system for a long time and felt that what those kids needed was to live just normal lives. So she created this community from scratch called Hope Meadows. It includes foster children, their adoptive parents and elders. At least half the community is now older people and in exchange for reduced rent, they must commit to volunteer a certain number of hours in the community.
It’s been very successful and extremely meaningful. Now there’s one in Easthampton, Mass. and one in Portland, Ore. I think it’s a really exciting model.
You also write about a Florida retirement community comprised of former mail carriers, called Nalcrest.
I don’t know of any other unions that have done this, but for some reason they have this visionary president who thought it would be great for their members to have this retirement community. It’s a very affordable community and they have this instant community to their past work lives. If the letter carrier dies, his or her spouse can stay.
How expensive are alternative retirement communities? You mention one co-housing community near you where a 2-bedroom apartment sells for more than $300,000.
When I started my research, I thought they would be more on the upper end and that I would really have to dig to find affordable ones. But the majority in the book turned out to be affordable.
House sharing is extremely affordable. The Senior Artists Colonies and Generations of Hope are extremely affordable.
There are some amazing people coming up in the world with ideas about affordable housing for older people and they’re devising some great alternatives.
Did you find places that are particularly helpful for people with Alzheimer’s?
Yes, but not many and that’s a big looming problem. The most exciting one was one in Maine: Full Circle America. It was invented by a family doctor, Allan Teel, and costs less than $1,000 a month.
He paired the desire of people with profound dementia to remain in their own homes with webcam monitors and volunteers.
In the book, I tell the story of Patty, who had dementia, and her daughter Amy. If Patty wanted to go out with a volunteer, the volunteer would leave a note on the white board for Amy and the webcam pans on it. The homes can have sensors; so someone looking at computer screen in the office can check on temperature of the rooms.
I wouldn’t want people to think that these are people who are still going to be isolated, but monitored. The community relationship piece turns it into a successful model.
What’s shared housing like? Is it similar to what 22- year-olds do when they get out of college?
It’s really different from that.
There are two kinds: One is house sharing among good friends. Often they’re single women who are growing older and realizing they’re paying for a lot of expenses out of pocket. The other type has been created by nonprofits who’ve created matchmaking services — they match unemployed people or college students who can’t afford their own homes with older people living alone. They do background checks, and stay involved after the match. If you have a problem, they will help mediate.
I think shared housing could really take off.
What advice would you give to someone in his or her 50s or 60s wondering where to live in retirement?
People often start by thinking about something that is not that important, like climate. The more important questions people should be thinking about are how attached are they to their own home and neighborhood. Having a sense of community should be raised much higher on people’s priority list.
Have you started making plans for where you’ll live in your 70s, 80s and 90s?
I have, and they’re evolving. We have formed a loose-knit support network for people 60 and older in our neighborhood and part of our conversations have been to look at our homes with fresh eyes.
My husband and I don’t have a bedroom on our ground floor, and we have now planned to build a pretty accessible bedroom and bath in case we can’t manage the stairs.
I was thinking this morning about a cool idea: We have a basement apartment in our house so I thought: What if you had a paid caregiver who could help a few households in the community and everyone shared the cost?
I think people should start thinking about things like that and get creative so they can live out their lives the way they want.