Baby boomers may opt for communal living again
By Craig Smith
Published: Monday, Sept. 17, 2012
A generation of Americans who embraced communal living in the 1960s is again considering that concept and other ways to coexist as they near retirement.
This time, they've traded peace signs for dollar signs.
“By force of sheer volume, the (baby boomers) who in 1968 thought they would change the world by 2028 actually will,” said Andrew Carle, founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Over the next three decades, one in five U.S. citizens will turn 65 or older, Carle said. They'll control more than half of the discretionary income, influencing entertainment, travel, food, retail, technology and housing.
Even now, seniors are redefining their living arrangements through cohousing communities, cooperative households and niche communities, experts said.
Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, might be more open to such ideas, having tried similar arrangements when they were younger, said Robert Schulz, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research.
And there's a practical side.
“As baby boomers age, getting appropriate support will be a challenge,” Schulz said. “Traditionally, children supply that support for their parents, but baby boomers had few children, so group housing has the potential for people to provide for and support each other.”
A problem now?
The nation's aging population is a major public health challenge of this century, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Researchers for some time have warned about “the 2030 problem” — the year when America's 78 million baby boomers will be ages 66 to 84. Their numbers could create far-reaching implications for the public health system and place unprecedented demands on services, the CDC said.
Some experts believe the crunch is here.
“You don't have to project out that far. The problem is here now,” said Stephen M. Golant, a gerontologist and geographer at the University of Florida who predicts that by the end of the decade, more than 98 million Americans will be 65 or older.
With health care professionals in short supply and high demand, retirement communities providing access to them will have appeal, experts said.
Not all boomers will move from homes in which they've lived for years.
Margie Castello, 49, and her husband, Louis, 51, of Renfrew in Butler County plan to age in place. They ride Harley-Davidsons and recently bought a motor home. They want to continue an active lifestyle.
“We've done things to make it easier on us so we can get up and go,” she said.
Sense of community
Boomers who do move won't go quietly to retirement homes like those that housed their parents. They've built more than 100 cohousing communities across the country and are exploring options such as university-based retirement communities.
Cohousing can be multi-generational and emphasizes privacy but with social contact among members, advocates say. Residents live in private homes but share facilities such as a common house, courtyards, playgrounds or gardens. People typically gather at least once a week for a meal.
“What's the best thing about cohousing? We know our neighbors really, really well,” said Joani Blank, 75, of Oakland, Calif., a former board member of the Cohousing Association of the United States. “What's the worst thing? We know our neighbors really, really well.”
Three such communities are forming in Pittsburgh — one in East Liberty, another in Sewickley and a third in Larimer, said Stefani Danes, an architect and Carnegie Mellon University professor who is helping plan the Sewickley project.
“This is the right time, now that our kids are gone, to downsize into something that makes sense for aging,” said Danes, 59, of Franklin.
Scilla Wahrhaftig, 70, gave up a big house near Frick Park for one of the renovated row houses that make up the Borland Gardens Intentional Community in East Liberty.
“I loved the idea of sharing, but I wanted my privacy,” Wahrhaftig said.
East Liberty Development Inc. acquired the row houses, which were in foreclosure, said Kendall Pelling, project manager, who believes the idea could grow.
“It gives people a sense of community,” he said. “One of the amenities with cohousing is the people.”
Developers of Hundredfold Farm, a cohousing community near Gettysburg, have completed 10 of 14 single-family homes planned for 75 acres that include a working Christmas tree farm, community vegetable and flower gardens, and a common house.
“We're more family than neighbors,” said Bill Hartzell, 53, a founding member of the community and cohousing association board member.
The project encountered some opposition when the group started talking about it in 1997, but members plodded along.
“Other efforts have come and gone over the past two decades, but Hundredfold Farm is nearing the finish line,” Hartzell said.
For three Mt. Lebanon women, helping one another started with a cat.
Louise Machinist, Jean McQuillin and Karen Bush began their experiment in cooperative householding eight years ago when Bush, 64, a consultant, needed someone to watch her cat during a West Coast trip.
Machinist, 66, a psychologist, volunteered to watch Beardsley. A one-month trip stretched into a year, and Bush began repaying her friend by taking her on trips. Before long, the three divorced, professional women — McQuillin, 67, is a nurse — established their “Old Biddies Commune.”
They bought a house together and share the costs of maintenance, utilities and other bills. They hope their unique “intentional community” becomes a model.
“We want people to learn from this,” said Bush, 64.
The women wrote a book, “My House, Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household,” and will give a seminar on cooperative householding at Carnegie Mellon University at 7:15 p.m. Sept. 27. An updated, expanded edition of their book, published by St. Lynn's Press, is due out in the spring.
University-based retirement communities offer people a chance to return to their alma maters or another campus where they can participate in school programs — from classes to concerts and sporting events.
Fifty to 75 such communities might exist across the country, said Carle, who is trying to confirm the number. The potential for their growth is large, since there are about 4,400 colleges and universities.
The Village at Penn State, an apartment and cottage complex within walking distance of the State College campus, caters to people in their 70s.
“This is an active, vibrant community. The residents are so busy,” said Lucille DeFronzo, vice president of sales and marketing for owner Liberty Lutheran. “There's a great camaraderie here.”
Niche communities are another emerging concept for which experts see potential.
Grateful Dead fans? Someone could build a retirement community just for you.
“These are not goofy ideas,” Carle said. “When you have 78 million people, you have critical mass to do whatever you want.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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