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.
While writing my book With a Little Help from Our Friends — Creating Community as We Grow Older, I discovered a surprising array of purpose-built communities made up of people who share common ideas, backgrounds or interests. Also known as niche or affinity communities, such places appeal to those who wish to live among their “tribe.”
Take those boomers who were part of the “back to the land” movement in the early 1970s. They can now put down roots on an organic farm, such as the multigenerational Nubanusit cohousing community in New Hampshire.
Others itching to explore their creativity can move to an affordable senior artist colony in southern California. In Florida, serious star-gazers share telescopes at Chiefland Astronomy Village. ShantiNiketan (“abode of peace” in Sanskrit), also in Florida, is a gated retirement community for immigrants from India, offering traditional food, prayer rooms and celebrations of Indian holidays.
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Some niche communities formed over the years did not survive the recession. But the number of these types of places is now expected to grow, along with the number of boomers transitioning to a new phase of life.
Tim Carpenter, executive director of the nonprofit EngAGE, based in southern California, is actively developing new affordable senior artist colonies around the country. The arts represent just one niche Carpenter imagines. For himself, he dreams of creating a community based on wellness — with neighbors who are enthusiastic hikers, cyclists, organic gardeners and fabulous cooks of wholesome fresh food.
“What’s the ideal community?” Carpenter asks. “You can walk next door and know you have something in common with this person. You have a fused passion.”
Here is a closer look at three of the many diverse communities built with fellow travelers in mind, providing a glimpse into how they are structured:
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1. Your RV Or Mine? The nonprofit Escapees CARE Center in Livingston, Texas, serves die-hard recreational vehicle (RV) enthusiasts who can no longer hit the road, due to illness or disability. These full-time RVers have no other home but the one on wheels. By moving to Escapees CARE Center, they can remain in their RV, with affordable services on site.
RVers are a breed apart. “They are a very welcoming community,” says Escapees CARE Center Executive Director Russ Johnson. “You come together in these different campgrounds. It’s easy to get together and talk about the places where we’ve been and where we’re going and help each other out as far as what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Escapees CARE (Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees) has two programs: Adult day services for RVers and the wider Livingston community (including for those with dementia) and “assisted living lite” for those who live onsite in their RVs and need some help. The adult day services cost $36 a day and include some nursing and personal care assistance. As for those who live in their RVs on site, the cost is $874 a month ($1,311 for a couple); residents get three meals a day, laundry, housekeeping, transportation to medical appointments, and other home maintenance services.
The community also offers weekly grocery trips and regular bus outings to the movies, a nearby lake, restaurants and plays.
“RVers are rather independent and are used to traveling and a great deal of activity,” says Johnson, a full-time RVer. “So our goal is to keep them active. If you’re active, social and happy, you’ll live longer.”
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2. A Contemplative Life. ElderSpirit, nestled in the rural southwest corner of Virginia, was founded by Dene Peterson, a former Catholic nun who was eager to live in a community with other people seeking to explore late-life spirituality. “I wanted to show that different things can be done,” she says. “With the baby boomers, aging will take its proper place.”
One of the first senior cohousing communities in the nation, ElderSpirit is open to people of all faiths and offers affordable rental units as well as market-rate townhouses. Like other cohousing communities, ElderSpirit has large common spaces, including a kitchen and dining room for weekly community meals, square dances and other gatherings, plus a library and an art studio.
What’s unusual about ElderSpirit is its attention to spirituality. An octagonal Spirit House is used for resident-led vespers, meditation, yoga and Sunday services. The group holds annual spiritual retreats that are open to those who want to “age in community — with spirit.”
Founding member Catherine Rumschlag says ElderSpirit is part of a growing movement of “conscious aging.” At ElderSpirit, she notes, “one might have more time for prayer, reading and meditation,” and to spiritually prepare for dying.
Monica Appleby, another founding member, says, “It’s a proactive way to plan for older, more frail years so that a community of friendship can be built for as long as possible.”
3. A Safe Haven. Birds of a Feather, a community of gay and lesbian people 50 and older is near Santa Fe, N.M. Gay people have long faced discrimination in traditional retirement communities and in long-term-care facilities. In response, a handful of LGBT retirement communities have been established, some affordable, others more swanky.
Bonnie McGowan, founder of Birds, says fears about growing old long weighed on her and her friends. So she set out to create a community where gay people could not only feel safe, but thrive in a place of natural beauty.
She purchased 140 acres in the middle of the Pecos Wilderness area and went through the laborious process of approval for 36 building lots. Eight homes have been built, and another 14 lots have been purchased. Although the recession stalled construction, things are picking up and several homes are now moving forward, she reports. "Our newest Little House model is under $250,000 and some of our custom homes are $800,000 and up," McGowans says.
Birds residents are close-knit and socialize regularly together, sharing morning coffee, hiking, playing music and even traveling together. But they are hardly reclusive, and are active in the wider community. Residents volunteer with the Pecos Valley Medical Center, the food bank, Big Brothers and Sisters, and the wildlife center.
"It's the best of all worlds as far as I'm concerned," says Birds resident Ellen Bell. "I live in the forest, I have the creatures, I can hike, my dogs can run loose and yet I'm surrounded by people who are like-minded, not only in terms of how I feel about nature but about community and caring for each other."