Creative housing options for people over 50
By Emily Gillespie
Several years ago, Pat McAulay, 66, of Durham, N.C., started thinking ahead to how she wanted to live as she aged and began researching all of the housing options available to her and her wife.
“It was an opportunity to be proactive about how we were going to spend our last years,” she says. “We had an opportunity to have a voice in what that looks like rather than someone making that decision for us in a crisis.”
McAulay watched her own mother fall and break her hip while living in her own house at 93. An ambulance took her away, and eventually, she ended up in an assisted living facility.
“She had doggedly chosen to say in her own home, but she was woefully unprepared,” McAulay says.
The first assisted living facility opened its doors nearly 40 years ago in Oregon, sparking a revolution in housing for aging citizens by making independence a priority and presenting a model that adapted to varying levels of medical and personal care.
Today, however, people are rebuking the cookie-cutter setting that often accompanies these kinds of facilities in favor of alternative housing options that cater to those over 50 in unique ways.
“(A traditional retirement community) doesn’t feel right to my generation,” McAulay says.
She’d also heard the horror stories within the LGBT community of bullying and exclusion that was happening in traditional senior facilities and retirement communities, a trend that was forcing people to hide their true identity. So she and her wife founded Village Hearth in Durham, NC, a co-housing residence which they designated as a place meant for older residents in the LGBT community and its allies.
“Neither of us came out until we were about 40. It took us so long to come out that we don’t want to go back in the closet just to live somewhere,” McAulay says.
McAulay researched all her options, and decided to start a cohousing community in Durham, N.C. One of the main draws for this model, McAulay says, is that it allows for the flexibility to design the space and create a community that fits your needs.
Cohousing is an intentional community consisting of small private homes clustered around shared spaces. Though cohousing looks different based on the community it’s serving and whether it’s in an urban or rural setting, it typically includes shared greenspace as well as a communal kitchen and dining space, which serves as an addition to those inside the private homes.
Cohousing is a living arrangement that allows you to downsize, yet still host 20 people for Thanksgiving if you want, says Karin Hoskin, executive director of Cohousing Association of America, a nonprofit that supports cohousing communities.
“The idea is that we share a lot. We don’t need 10 to 15 lawn mowers,” Hoskin says.
The concept was brought to the United States from Denmark in the early ‘90s. Today, there are 170 cohousing communities with another 140 or so in some stage of development, Hoskin says. Cohousing communities are open to all ages and demographics, she says, but about 15 cohousing communities were created specifically for people over the age of 50, with another five in development.
McAulay says she looks forward to spending her remaining years in this setting because her neighbors, she is sure, will inspire her to do some of the things she’s always meant to in retirement. She and her wife are already talking about volunteering and taking art classes.
“There’s going to be a lot of motivation to be active, to remain active and engaged and have purpose in life,” she says.
After years of planning and working with developers, Village Hearth opened last spring. The 15-acre plot has 28 single-story homes and a 2,600-square-foot common house with a kitchen, dining room, exercise room and art studio. There are walking trails through the wooded area and there are plans to add a dog park.
McAulay recognizes that the living arrangement isn’t for everyone – it is counterculture to the individualism that is ingrained into the American way of life. But McAulay says that building a future housing model that includes reliance on others is exactly what she wanted.
“It’s the intentionality. People are coming together with the intention of being good neighbors,” she says. “We not only have folks that we can help, but we also have to remember to ask for help too. It is a hard barrier to overcome, but we’re much more likely to do it when that’s the expectation.”
AGING IN PLACE
For most people, the idea of moving out of their house — one they’ve poured money, sweat and memories into — isn’t at all what they want. A recent AARP survey revealed that 76% of Americans age 50 and older say they would prefer to remain in their current residence. It’s a trend that has made ‘aging in place’ the buzzword of the decade.
That’s exactly how Susan Kellom felt as she began to grow older. Kellom and her husband both worked in the Army and moved around a lot throughout their lives. The 73-year-old felt happy to stay put in Alexandria, Va. when she and her husband moved there in the ‘80s.
“As much as we enjoyed what we were doing, this has become our home,” she says. “We both feel that we’ve got a lot invested in this house. We’ve been here for so long that we’ve got so much attached to it. It means a lot to us.”
Over the years they’ve built the deck and shed the way they like and landscaped the yard without grass so they don’t have to mow it, something she hates doing.
Several years ago, Kellom, who has neuropathy, was driving when her foot slipped off the brake. The scary ordeal made her decide to stop driving and a few years later, her husband followed suit. But they still wanted to stay in their home.
When that happened, she joined At Home in Alexandria, a nonprofit she heard about from a friend.
At Home follows the “village” model, where members pay dues for access to services most needed by the aging community including transportation, errands, yard work and help with technology and small house projects. They also offer members discounted services with contractors and volunteers who provide things like check-ins, friendly visits and organized events.
“Village is the perfect way to describe it,” Kellom says. “It creates the feeling that you belong … It’s a feeling of security that you know that when you’ve got something that you really need help with, you will get that help.”
The entire experience of being part of the village community, Kellom says, has made her face her own limitations. She says receiving help from others has made aging more fulfilling, because the help comes with a ton of understanding from others in the same situation.
“One of the things that makes me smile the most is, when there’s snow, you don’t even ask, there’s a group of people who show up to shovel,” she says. “It just makes you feel so good to be taken care of in that way.”
At the moment, Kellom mostly uses the service for getting to doctors’ appointments and for help with projects around the house, such as moving furniture or planting starters in the garden. As she gets up in years, though, she can see herself using more of the organization’s services. All this, she says, will allow her to remain in her home.
“Oh my gosh, for my husband and I, if we had to leave this house, we would be very hard to deal with,” Kellom says.
THE VILLAGE MODEL
Barbara Hughes Sullivan, executive director of the Village to Village Network, is aware of how much older folk want to stay in their homes.
“There are four little words I constantly hear: ‘I’m not ready yet,’” she says.
Launched in 2010, the Village to Village Network aims to expand and maintain the village movement by offering guidance and support villages across the country. When the organization began there were 48 villages already operating in 10 states. That number has since grown to about 270 villages in 42 states and four countries, with about 70 more villages in development.
“The whole village movement was created around a need in the middle class and a void of services,” Hughes Sullivan says.
By 2029, more than half of middle-income Americans over the age of 75 will not be able to afford yearly assisted living rent or medical expenses, according to a Health Affairs study. Downsizing to a smaller, less expensive home, isn’t always as feasible of an option, either. In some cities, Hughes Sullivan says, the real estate market has shifted in a way where retirees could be spending the same amount of money for a smaller house.
Through volunteers and paid staff, villages fill the gaps created by the desire to age in place. Villages can look different from one another, depending on the community they’re serving, Hughes Sullivan says. Some are 14-square blocks with 50 members and others are 14-square miles with 650 members. Members tend to be 65 and older. The most popular service they offer is transportation, which makes up 67% of their offerings.
“When you’re growing old, what do you give up first? The ability to drive,” Hughes Sullivan says.
Along with financial concerns, those who decide to remain in their own home also face another hurdle: isolation. Studies have shown that lack of social connection increases health risks to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Aging alone at home is something that doesn’t appear to be going away. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, between 2015 and 2035 the number of people over 75 who live alone will double, from 6.9 million to 13.4 million.
“Your natural community starts to erode,” says Wendi Burkhardt. “We’re fierce about being independent at a time when we really need to be more connected than we’ve ever been.”
Burkhardt is the co-founder and CEO of Silvernest, a home-sharing company that matches empty nesters and aging homeowners, often between 62-65, who have extra unused bedrooms with renters. Silvernest helps find compatible people, performs background checks and assists in making rental agreements. Sixty-eight percent of homeowners are females. Renters tend to be a bit younger but staying within a 10-year age span.
“As we age, we don’t naturally think about living with someone unless it’s our immediate family,” Burkhardt says. “We have been trained to think that having roommates is something you do when you’re younger, but there’s no logical reason for that.”
Home-sharing is a housing option that aging citizens are choosing that not only staves off isolation, but it also helps to ease the financial burden felt by a rising cost of living. Silvernest helps homeowners save around $10,000 to $12,000 each year. Renters, too, she says, end up saving an average of 50% of the market rate.
“(The savings) could be significant on both sides,” she says. “We hear a lot about boomer wealth, but a majority of that generation has not saved well for retirement … We believe that (home-sharing) is a fast and easy way to provide an additional source of financial stability.”
The number of older adults facing housing cost burdens reached an all-time high of 10 million, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Regina Ford, a 63-year-old woman in Oregon, first got involved with homes-haring out of her own financial need. She lost her job and house in the 2009 recession, so went to live with her daughter and son-in-law for a year.
“I don’t want to be the mother and mother-in-law that sticks around forever and interferes in their relationship and cramps their style, so I made arrangements to move in with a good friend,” she says.
That roommate arrangement lasted for about five years before she moved in with another friend, where she has lived for more than two years.
“The prospect of living alone was not an attractive one,” Ford says. “If I were to buy another house, I’d seek a roommate of my own. It’s just easier to be the renter.”
Through her experience, Ford has seen the challenges and benefits of sharing living space as an aging adult. For example, she likes to read a lot, so gets bothered when there’s too much noise in her house. At the same time, the homes she has lived in have had gardens, so she’s been able to grow vegetables to eat and share.
“Everyone wants to live the life the way they do – have privacy when they want it and shared time when they want it. It doesn’t always overlap perfectly,” she says. “But if you do your homework up front, you can get along pretty well.”
Ford said she can see the benefit for homeowners having a roommate at an older age, such as offering discounted rent for help with things like running errands or projects around the house.
For now, Ford and her current roommate keep each other in check. Living as a roommate is perfect for her, Ford says, as it also allows her to be mobile and travel if she likes. She says owning a home is “an anchor around your neck that ties you down and holds you to a certain place. It’s a huge expense that you have to keep feeding,” she says. “I don’t like looking retrospectively, I like looking forward … I would rather travel light.”
About the Writer
Emily Gillespie (Bucket Age — 50) is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fortune, the Guardian and Vice. More of her work can be found at her website, emilygillespie.com.
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