Meet the new Golden Girls (and guys): How boomers are coming up with creative living arrangements
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015 3:16PM EST
This is part of The Globe and Mail’s week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada’s economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?
For more, visit tgam.ca/boomershift and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers.
Marianne Kilkenny’s salad dressing recipe called for honey. She was all out, so she picked up her phone and texted. “Here are three women with honey at my door,” recalls Kilkenny, whose salad was dressed in less than five minutes. “Having proximity, having people close? You cannot buy that.”
Divorced with no children, Kilkenny shared her home in Asheville, N.C., with a parade of middle-aged housemates for four years. She kept a mother-in-law suite with its own kitchen, while her Golden Girls shared the rest of the house. Many were single women between 54 and 72, like herself, although a married couple and a single guy passed through, too. For Kilkenny, 66, living with this “chosen family” was heartening. “I could sit at the dinner table with somebody and say, ‘How was your day?’ Or soup would magically appear in my fridge because somebody made too much,” she says. “Little blessings that add up.”
Kilkenny now wants to go bigger: She is planning her own “pocket neighbourhood,” a pedestrian-centric settlement with 12 small cottages, a 4,000-square-foot communal space and shared garden. She envisions a place where interdependence among residents is key, with people relying on those they know and love – not on medical staff.
“I can’t count on the government,” says Kilkenny, who founded the organization Women for Living in Community to advocate for alternative housing options such as the ones she dreams up. “Us boomers, we’re not afraid of being the first at something, or being accused of being self-indulgent. … We’re vocal and we know what we want.”
Baby boomers have long rejected tradition. Now, some are hoping to re-invent yet another stage in life: old age. As the first wave of boomers retires, some are writing a new script for what comes next. While their parents also sought to avoid institutions, most did not think further than the family home. They “aged in place,” often suffering social isolation and reduced mobility, especially after the death of a spouse.
Their children do not want to grow old alone. They want to age well in community, not in a pod in the sky or a rural home on the peripheries. The buzzword is “interdependence:” You want your own space but you also want to know – and to some degree, depend on – your neighbours. These boomers want someone to be there for them before a nurse is needed, which may be a while given their unprecedented health and longevity.
To that end, alternative housing arrangements are popping up all over North America, with a small but determined cohort – many of them single, divorced and widowed – thinking up many of the setups themselves. Harkening back to the communes and co-ops of the boomers’ youth, about a dozen “co-housing” communities have sprouted across Canada, with dozens more in the planning stages.
Most consist of small individual apartments or houses with large shared kitchens, dining rooms, terraces and gardens where neighbours willingly interact. For those who want the energy of the young, there are multi-generational communities that welcome families. For others who would rather splurge on yoga mats, elevators and respite suites than on playgrounds, certain developments are reserved for empty-nesters. They are planned, owned and managed by residents, not outsiders.
Those on more of a budget are starting to take up with housemates in shared homes, à la The Golden Girls (and boys). Many are hiring housekeepers to avoid bickering over the chores; when the time comes, many are also planning to bring in caregivers, some of whom might live on-site in special suites.
What the trailblazers of this movement have in common is this: They saw what happened to their parents and do not want it to happen to them. Ferociously independent, boomers are saying “no thanks” to expensive retirement and nursing homes where itineraries are set and staff call the shots.
“There are a lot of boomers who do not go happy into this night,” says Janet Torge, Montreal founder of Radical Resthomes. “You don’t want us in your institutions, really. We are not going to be docile.”
The Montreal organization (tagline: “A Complete Re-think for a New Generation”) helps people who want to bring community into their lives for their senior years. Torge grew up in a big family and says she likes “circus” around her; at 68, she hopes soon to live with two or three other boomers. “It’s a completely different way of dealing with your old age,” she says of shared homes and co-housing colonies.
The movement traces its roots to Denmark, where multi-generational communal homes began appearing 40 years ago. California architect Chuck Durrett exported the concept to the United States in the 1980s, when he coined the term “co-housing.” Today, the focus is shifting to seniors. The idea is to age in dignity – independently but with communal support.
“At its best, this system works even better than only relying on a spouse because you have a whole group of people and no one is overly burdened,” says Bella DePaulo, author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, which traces the shift away from the nuclear family home. A social scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, DePaulo finds the level of innovation and experimentation remarkable. “You can meet your friends and eat and drink and walk home across a stretch of green.”
For Margaret Critchlow, co-housing is “a livelier way of growing old together” that does not stress the aging part. In January, the 68-year-old anthropologist and her husband, John, are slated to move to Harbourside, a deluxe co-housing community in Sooke, B.C. The average price for one of the 31 homes is $375,000. Individual units, some of them rental, are only about 845 square feet, but all residents have views of the water, gardens, a wharf and a 4,000-square foot common house complete with a kitchen and a library.
So far, the future residents range in age from 48 to their late 80s, including three families of more than one generation. One member of each household is asked to take a weekend course on the core values of co-housing, the guiding principle being “voluntary, neighbourly mutual support” among residents.
“It starts with the recognition that we’ve been doing this as neighbours for centuries in our culture – supporting each other,” says Critchlow, who has noticed that giving is not as hard as receiving for the boomers. “This is really hard for us: to be open to accepting support and care from other people. We’re practising.”
More than anything else, baby boomers are shifting social expectations of what a neighbour should be. In Saskatoon, the three-year-old Wolf Willow Cohousing complex is designed to encourage interaction. It has 4,500 square feet of common space and a whiteboard that fills everyone in on what is happening, from movie nights to communal meals.
Thirty-five people from the ages of 55 to 85 live here – half singles and half couples. Currently, one person is recovering from major heart surgery upstairs; the others are informally making meals and ferrying them up.
“We’re not a nursing home. We are here to age in place together and to watch out for each other,” said Christine Smillie, a 62-year-old Wolf Willow resident. When Smillie’s husband, Glenn, discovered a neighbour had pneumonia, he drove her to the hospital. The community has helped each other through three knee replacements in the span of five months. “There were lots of meals, driving people places and going and helping them put their socks on,” Smillie chuckles. “It’s just the way I like to live. This is the way it should be. You take care of each other.”
Some advocates believe women in particular will benefit from these communal initiatives. Beverly Suek, founder of the Women’s Housing Initiative Manitoba, notes that women live longer, tend to have lower retirement income and end up alone more often than men, who frequently marry younger women post-divorce.
Since April, Suek, a 69-year-old widow, has lived with two divorced women in their 50s in an elegant shared home on a leafy street in Winnipeg. A fourth divorcée arrives in January, and they are hoping for a fifth. Each will have her own bedroom. The kitchen, where they take turns cooking, and bathroom are shared, as are the expenses, including for a housekeeper and someone who mows the lawn and shovels the driveway.
Suek met her roommates through word of mouth and screened candidates with interviews and a questionnaire to gauge their values on neatness, food, guests and “community-mindedness.” Like other boomers, Suek said she made the unconventional choice to live with older roommates because she is not a fan of “paternalistic” institutions for the elderly.
“I don’t want to spend my time making Styrofoam snowmen – the arts and crafts thing, you know? We talk politics, social change, what’s going on in the news. I’ve learned stuff I never knew before because I’m in this constant learning process,” she says.
Canada counts about eight million baby boomers born here and another 1.5 million who are immigrants, according to the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. In 2011, Statistics Canada found that boomers made up nearly 30 per cent of the population; the oldest are now 69. The ones considering these alternative arrangements for their old age are thinking ahead – way ahead.
They are something of an anomaly in a generation that has always considered itself “forever young” – many boomers quip about never retiring and most would prefer not to contemplate their senior home options just yet. While denial is rampant, given the critical mass of this demographic – it has been dubbed both a shockwave and a “pig in a python” – boomers would be wise to plan ahead.
“You have to make this move before you’re ready for it,” Torge stresses. “When you actually need people around you, you’re probably already sick. You’re trying to do it before you need anybody.”
While their residents love them, these unconventional homes face hurdles, from a dearth of skilled project managers to affordability. Without government or foundational support, it is hard to build places with so much common space below market rate (one idea is retrofitting existing social housing and condos into more community-minded places to live). Developers and government agencies have not exactly clued in to the bulge of boomer retirees heading their way.
“They still see ‘seniors’ as 80 and over,” Torge says. “We’re not even on their radar.”
The co-housing rules
There are four key tenets of co-housing, says Janet Torge, Montreal founder of Radical Resthomes, which hosts workshops on alternative housing choices like co-ops, cohousing and shared homes.
- The spaces are managed by the people who live there, without outside directive. “It doesn’t mean that you always get your way,” says Torge. “There’s always going to be compromise but you’re in charge of your own life.”
- Residents respect and look out for each other. “Every time you need something, you don’t call a nurse. It’s building of community again,” says Torge. Cohousing experts recommend that values and expectations for the home are stated explicitly, even in document-form (hot zones typically include cleanliness, chores, noise and guests). Some people screen incoming housemates using interviews; others go so far as to host seminars on “non-violent communication.”
- When neighbourly “co-care” becomes too much, professional caregivers are summoned to come to the ailing person, not the other way around.
- Residents age among community, not alone. “We die in our own beds, not in institutions, as possible,” says Torge.
The 21st-Century commune
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, May 12, 2006 12:00AM EDT
It’s a sunny day in Roberts Creek, and Kurt Grimm is helping landscape the new common house. He takes off his gloves to shake hands, then heads to a conical pile of fresh topsoil and sits down on the dirt. An associate professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Grimm doesn’t miss a beat when asked what drew him to Roberts Creek Cohousing.
“Climate change and ecosystem collapse are a symptom of a deeper social problem,” he says, squinting into the sun. “The highly individuated lifestyle we’re leading is driving the problem. It’s the huge-footprint lifestyle of the wealthy north, and we moved here to get away from it, towards authentic rather than material fulfillment.”
He considers for a moment, then smiles. “Of course, that’s not what everyone would say we’re doing. My wife would say we’re doing this because it’s great for us and our kids.”
If phrases like ‘authentic fulfilment’ sound like a throwback, Mr. Grimm is unconcerned. “I’m not a noble savage, back-to-the-good-old-days type. But if we’re going to find a new way of living together that works, this is very close.”
Mr. Grimm and his family are one of 31 families at Roberts Creek Cohousing, an intentional community in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast. It’s the first rural co-housing project in Canada, and one of about 40 such communities established in North America. Completed in December of 2004, RCC is also one of the newest developments.
Co-housing began in Denmark — under a name considerably more difficult to pronounce — over thirty years ago. By clustering homes around shared gathering areas, it attempts to overcome the isolation of single-family housing, use less land and resources, and return village-like interaction to urban and suburban life. It was introduced to North America in 1988 by architects and authors Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.
As a rural development on 20 acres, RCC is something of a co-housing rarity. But in terms of structure, it’s mainline orthodox, with all the defining attributes set out by Ms. McCamant and Mr. Durrett. With the help of several architects and consultants, residents made all design decisions. Homes are clustered to encourage personal interaction, in this case on 11-by-30-metre lots around a 2,900-square foot central common house (with a kitchen, children’s room, guest suite, office, laundry, and, not least, a movie room with a big-screen projector). Decisions are made by consensus, and houses are privately owned in a bare-land strata, fee-simple arrangement.
The homes themselves vary from one to four bedrooms, and customization was kept to a minimum. They are small by North American standards: two-bedroom homes are 860 square feet, three-bedrooms run to 1,300 square feet.
Most are less than five metres apart. In addition to promoting community, clustering enabled savings on sewage, water and underground telephone infrastructure. It also allowed five acres of forest to be preserved in a land trust.
Aside from Hardiplank fly-ash cladding and non-toxic interior paints, RCC is fairly light on ecological architecture (which “smacked right up against affordability” in the words of a resident). The development was planned for minimal impact on the trees, however, so that only 20 per cent had to be cut down to make room for the homes. Porch railings, stairs and eave supports were milled on-site from the 150 cedars that were cut down.
Along the six-year road to completion, a core group of six to fifteen pioneers had to form a corporation and endure a gruelling series of public meetings to justify zoning variances. They also had to convince the surrounding Roberts Creek community they weren’t real estate profiteers or the leading edge of a wave of suburban gentry.
“It was a torturous process at times,” says Gary Kent, an instructor at Inside Passage, a fine woodworking school based in Roberts Creek. Natives of the Sunshine Coast for close to 30 years, Mr. Kent and his partner Stacia Leech were the originators of the RCC project. “Roberts Creek sees itself as countercultural, back to the land, and co-housing is seen as urban and middle class. There’s a tendency to want to close the gates. But eventually there was a terrifically positive feeling toward the project.”
Mr. Kent and Ms. Leech learned about co-housing from Alan Carpenter of Windsong, a community in Langley. With the help of Ronaye Matthews of Cohousing Development Consulting, the core members — the “burning souls,” as Mr. Kent says — slowly gathered community support, a financially feasible development plan and a critical mass of committed investors.
“It’s been a long exercise in determination, perseverance, sticking to one’s ideals, and the ability to sit through endless meetings — all day, every Saturday, for two years,” said one member with a mixture of pride and disbelief.
And now, says Mr. Kent, the real work is beginning. “We thought once we had everything built, the hard work was behind us. But the real big job is sustaining the community, so it doesn’t fall back into that abyss of just a bunch of houses and folks not communicating. It takes work.”
The central neighbourhood lane is mandated as car-free, and on this weekend afternoon is alive with people wielding shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows, as well as kids returning from the Sunday hockey game in the lower cul-de-sac. While the presence of neighbours is delightful, says Mr. Kent, it can be challenging. “The balance of individual and community is always in your face here. We used to live on a property by ourselves, so it was a challenge to adjust, looking out our front window seeing people all the time. It’s not for everyone, it’s quite cheek by jowl.”
Dave and Kate Barratt moved to RCC from their home in New York. After a year and a half, they’ve moved out and put their co-housing home on the market. “I work full time and I travel a lot,” says Ms. Barratt, “so when I got back I’d want to relax. But we’re so close to each other, you see people all the time and you’re never really alone — I just didn’t feel I could relax. There was no private place for me to be.”
Interpersonal issues were also a major challenge. “There are a lot of people who bring their unhappy childhoods and emotional stuff to the community meetings. I liked working together with people, and being able to walk out of your house and have ready-made friends. But I guess the emotional healing people wanted to happen, I just wasn’t there for it.”
In addition to unwanted emotional intensity, for Mr. Barratt the small-footprint houses were a downside. “We moved from a larger house and had to downsize. Nothing we owned fit in the house, and we felt very crammed and temporary in the space. It didn’t feel right for us from the time we moved in.”
Mr. Kent guides me up a path along Clack Creek, part of the mature second-growth cedar forest that has been preserved in trust. Considering the idea of privacy, he confides that he takes this path to the common woodworking shop at the back of the property when he doesn’t want to see anyone. “If I walk up the main street, it can take me two hours to get to the shop,” he says with a laugh. “People come out of their houses and we end up talking or I end up helping them with some electrical or plumbing problem.”
Ms. Leech agrees that living in co-housing is not always a picnic, but is confident the work will pay off. “People are dealing with the major stress of moving and coming into an alien community. It really skews the first couple of years. But we’re beginning to see the potential now that those ripples are settling out. The rewards are as intense as the challenges. That’s what keeps me here, and keeps me in community.”
As my friends and I grow older, we’re setting our sights on communal living
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2016 2:46PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2016 2:46PM EDT
Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines attgam.ca/essayguide.
A few years ago, four friends began a conversation: Here we are in our 50s and 60s, still active and (relatively) youthful, but all moving toward the day when we can no longer cling to our cherished independence. Retirement homes seem unappealing, nursing homes a last resort. Why not live together and support each other?
It was casual at first, a bit of a joke. But we kept coming back to it. Finally, a few months ago, we went off for a weekend together to come up with a plan.
We began with our reasons for wanting to consider this seemingly offbeat idea. What attracts us to living together?
First, community. André Picard, among others, has written about the extensive research showing that community is vital to health. Being connected – to family, friends, neighbours, a community group, a running club, a mosque – can add years to your life, studies have found.
Second, a smaller carbon footprint. A smaller home envelope to heat and cool and a shared kitchen with fewer appliances than separate houses mean fewer greenhouse gases.
While affordability is not the key driver of our plan, we do expect living together to be more economical than our current, independent living arrangements.
Gradually, a rough plan came into focus. The house should have a front porch, one of us said (zeroing in on essentials!). It has to be downtown, we all agreed – downtown, walkable and close to transit.
Over the course of our weekend retreat, the conversation took some radical turns. Initially, we had imagined a series of neighbouring condos or other self-contained units, but as we talked further, we found ourselves more drawn to a truly shared space.
We realized, for example, that we want to eat dinner together more often than not. Most of us like to cook, and we all love to eat. So a big common kitchen is essential. We like to discuss stuff – just about any stuff – so we need places for conversation.
We have children and grandchildren, and love to entertain, so a guest suite is an obvious need. A media room. A wine cellar! As the common areas became more central to our discussion, the private areas became smaller. We now imagine each unit (person or couple) having private space of about 600 square feet, designed to suit individual preferences. Naturally, everything will be designed to accommodate “aging in place.”
At the end of the weekend, we had a three-page “proposal.” Confidently, we sent off a series of e-mails to friends who we thought might be interested.
Gradually, we realized that our months of casual conversation and our weekend of focused discussion had led us to ideas that might seem rather startling to anyone hearing them for the first time. It was almost as if we had suddenly interrupted a polite afternoon tea by suggesting group sex.
Our friends didn’t know how to react. “Lovely to hear from you,” one reply read, avoiding any mention of our proposal. “Hope to see you soon.”
Okay, maybe we should have eased into it more.
Others picked up on the architecture but not so much on the community. “Really interesting idea. We might consider it when we can’t manage the stairs any more.”
Okay, maybe we could have explained that part better. It’s not about the stairs.
Barring the unforeseen, each of us has decades of healthy living ahead of us. We don’t yet need any physical accommodations to our living space. So, why now? Why not wait until the stairs are too much for us? Simply put, it takes time to grow old together; it takes time to form community.
We have seen parents and older friends reluctantly accept the move into a retirement house full of strangers when they felt there was no other choice. But hanging on until there’s no choice can become a trap.
I recently heard about an elderly couple still living independently while coping with disabilities. He’s blind, she’s beginning to show signs of dementia. Together, they are fine: She can see where they are, he can remember why they’re there. But their independence is precarious. If either one were incapacitated, neither could function alone.
We are choosing to form community now, while we can still run up a flight of stairs, so that later, when our steps are more tentative, we will have friends within reach.
Of course, we also have our share of the baby-boomer attitude that says, if you don’t like the choices on offer, demand something else. Not happy with retirement homes? Fine, we’ll reinvent them for ourselves.
However, this is not truly new, it’s a modern variation of the extended family that was common a few generations ago. It’s a bit countercultural, in the face of the North American ideal of independence. We’re okay with that. We have come to see interdependence as more desirable.
So, we’re continuing to explore the idea and have created a Facebook page, facebook.com/CohousingForCreativeAging, in the hope of expanding the conversation – and, perhaps, the community.
Douglas Tindal lives in Toronto