Communities and Old Age: Opportunities and Challenges for People over 50
Being part of an intentional community in old age is a way to challenge the isolation and social exclusion that many older people experience in our youth-oriented western societies. Living in an intentional community is a way to maintain personal autonomy as well as add an active, vibrant, companionable dimension to one’s later life. While group living is not everyone’s cup of tea, if you are interested in it don’t wait until you are really old to explore the available options. Anticipate and take action to join or start such communities while you have plenty of drive and energy for new opportunities, challenges, excitement, and personal growth. Don’t wait for the future to be decided for you. Shape it for yourself. There are other people out there with whom you can share the experience.
Communities of Interest
For some people it is enough to belong to a supportive nonresidential community such as a club or network. For example, the Growing Old Disgrace-fully network was developed by older women specifically to address issues such as those outlined above. (This article will focus more on women than men, because women outnumber men by a ratio of three to one in extreme old age, women experience widowhood more often than men, and women are more likely than men to be poor and to be discriminated against.) In Britain, North America, Australia, and New Zealand this network offers a challenge to general expectations that older women will make a quiescent, retiring descent into old age-—to be neither seen nor heard. It puts women into contact with each other to develop friendships, share ideas, time, social and recreational activities, and travel. For many women, this network offers a sufficient sense of a community for a certain phase of their lives. Groups such as Wise Old Women, a network of socially critical women aged 50+ in Amsterdam, and the Older Women’s Networks in London, Toronto, and Sydney, offer stimulating involvement in public and political life in addition to support and social connections.
In North America, RV clubs offer a form of community that combines community of interest with transient forms of residence. These clubs are attractive to people over 50 who value adventure, self-reliance, and freedom. The RV, it should be explained for a European readership, is a recreational vehicle-—the home on wheels for which North America’s long tradition of covered wagons roaming wide open spaces offers such abundant scope. Dorothy and David Counts1 estimate that there are some two million RVs traveling through North America at any one time. Touring by RV is an activity especially favored by older people who no longer have the ties of work, children, and schools. The bumper sticker, “We’re Spending Our Children’s Inheritance!” is a particularly gleeful reflection of the liberating effect of hitting the road in later life. RV clubs such as the Escapees, Slab City Singles, the Tin Can tourists, and RVing Women offer a sense of belonging to a specific community on the road, mutual assistance, and a social life.
A Transient Community
Through its networking activities, the RVing Women clubs founded a number of RV parks for its members. While there are thousands of RV parks in North America, these are a specific type of intentional community that cater to women who want to settle temporarily between trips. I visited two of these parks while conducting research on older women’s collaborative living arrangements in different countries.2 My first question was: “Are they a community?” My basic rule of thumb for defining community was: “Is there mutual support? If you get sick or are in need, will someone notice and take care of you?” I found that alongside the many activities one would associate with mobile home or holiday park living, a strong supportive network exists. This is a real community, despite the fact that very few members live there all year round. The relatively large traveling population of the RV parks offers scope for the formation of friendship networks and groupings based on particular interests from meditation to hiking to shooting pool. Over the years, women in these RV communities have cared for other women who are ill or dying. Members on the road have a strong sense that they are coming home to a place where they will be welcomed and drawn in. This transient community of “snowbirds” (who move south for the sun) manages to combine some of the benefits of a residential community with the attractions of a traveling way of life. It is an ideal arrangement for people over 50 who have the time and resources to live full or part-time in an RV, and who want both new challenges and support.
Intentional Residential Communities
Intentional residential communities are cooperative schemes purposefully set up to function as collaborative communities, rather than condominiums, which are basically a legal form underpinning a shared building. Resident control is an essential defining feature of community for the purposes of this article. Retirement homes, nursing homes, or sheltered housing for the old are often described as communities. While they may be companionable and supportive, they lack the key element of self-determination and governance that distinguishes them from intentional communities. Retirement and continuing care environments and retirement cities are an important resource base for those who choose or need to live in them, but they may or may not add up to community in a real sense. They are often the last recourse of the frail and they tend to concentrate too many people, who are united only by the fact of their aging and little else, in one place.
For people who plan to stay active and involved in older age, belonging to a group of people united by some common bond, ideology, or value base has much to recommend it. There are religious, utopian, and ecological communities both in North America and in Europe, where people grow old in a familiar environment with their own and other younger families around them. These communities are often only now, after 20 to 30 years of existence, coming to grips with the aging of their members and a new dimension of need for care and support. Where they have not been static but have bred or recruited new younger members over the years, they remain balanced and resilient. Preferable to the abrupt cessation of work enforced by many retirement systems, inter-generational communities can offer positive opportunities to stay involved and valued while gradually phasing out physical labor. However, where all have aged together and the common life of the group is based on physical labor, there is a need for such communities to take stock and make provision for the inevitable frailties of advanced age. People over 50 years of age joining or starting communities designed to be self-sufficient and labor intensive need to question how long they will be able to sustain the challenges this represents and make provision accordingly. This has been the experience of a number of groups in the Netherlands.
In the less labor-intensive setting of an urban environment, there are a growing number of senior cooperatives described as “the fastest growing housing alternative in small town America.”3 As a member of an American senior cooperative commented, “Cooperative community is a lifestyle whose time has come. The elderly living out lonely years alone in a big house is no longer necessary. É I can enjoy as much or as little social life as I want but still feel secure in the knowledge that the community is always here. We do have concern for each other.”4 While it is a matter of taste whether one feels more at home in an intergenerational environment or with one’s own age cohort in a senior cooperative, research into mixed age cooperatives in western Canada has found that older people in these cooperatives felt they had less say over decisions than their equivalents in seniors-only coops.5 The voices of seniors tend to be drowned out by the demands of younger people. House sharing, where an older person shares his or her house with younger tenants in return for support and services, is widespread in North America. It has the advantage that the older person retains control, but it does not offer the scope and variety of social involvement found in a cooperative. Canada has a strong tradition of housing cooperatives and some of them have been started by older people for older people. One such development in Vancouver was started by five university secretaries who were contemplating retirement and needed affordable housing. Now a flourishing cooperative in an award-winning building, this group of women and men have created a strong and challenging community where members feel a sense of responsibility for each other. A more recent development in Toronto is the OWN Co-operative developed by the Older Women’s Network. It opened in 1997, after years of struggle against adverse political conditions. This 152-unit cooperative provides apartments for women and men over 45 years old and allocates a certain number of its units to disabled people and older women who have suffered abuse. The creation of this cooperative is a shining example of the energy and drive of older women. Its members are active, and live in a safe, congenial, and affordable environment.
Cohousing as Intentional Community
The cohousing movement, started in Denmark and imported to the United States by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett,6 has developed primarily through the efforts of younger families and single people, but also includes older members. Cohousing is a way of living for those seeking to combine the privacy of their own dwellings with the advantages of shared facilities and community life in an environment that they and their companions design and control. Cooperatives may also share these characteristics, but they are frequently much larger, more physically scattered, and more oriented toward affordable accommodation. There are no cohousing communities exclusively for older people in the United States and only a few in Denmark, as far as this author knows. It is in the Netherlands where cohousing communities of older people, men and women ranging in age from 55 to 90+, have really taken off over the past 15 years. Some 200 of them are currently in existence or in the planning stage. I carried out a study of this movement in the Netherlands in 19987 and found their members valued them most for the “gezelligheid” (roughly translated as warmth and companionability) they provide, for the opportunities they offer for casual or regular social interaction, and for the ethos of mutual support to which members commit. Most of these cohousing communities have not continued the cohousing tradition of eating together, although some groups do this periodically. Some of them started years ago with a collective farming model in mind, but have been unable to sustain this. Their social aim is to function as friendly neighbors and they recruit new members through a selection system based on readiness to share in the group’s philosophy. There are cohousing developments in the Netherlands that cater to all ages. People who prefer this option can grow old in an environment shared with young people and children. Older people who form their own communities are making a definite choice to live with their own age-group. When I interviewed individual members and inquired into this preference, a typical response was, “We love our grandchildren but we are also glad when they go home.” Many had come from environments where they felt isolated because their younger neighbors were out at work all day. It is also important for some people to share a common experience and understanding of aging. In cohousing communities with an age range of 55 to 90+ years, the groups that have been successful have taken care to spread their ages from the beginning so that they have a natural renewal process with younger recruits replacing older members who die or move on. There is an extensive support and community education system in the Netherlands that assists older people to form these communities—including courses on group living and conflict resolution. This movement was built on the alternative culture of the 1960s and 1970s. As one cohousing member in her late seventies said, “We thought our children had had communes, so why not us? We had had enough of living in a family setup. And because the family is considered the most important cornerstone of society, the woman left on her own was threatened with no other role than that of a grandmother. Whoever didn’t aspire to that quickly found herself a pitiful, isolated little old lady. And you picture yourself when you are 70 or 80, with your feminist ideas going into an ordinary old people’s home!”8 There is a nascent cohousing group in Amsterdam of 50+ women who call themselves Now for Later. They are looking into the possibility of either converting an old warehouse or building from new to provide a mutually supportive living and working environment for lesbian women of different cultures in the city. Similarly, a group of women in London aged from their late forties to late seventies is meeting regularly to plan their own cohousing community in the capital. This will take some time to realize and they are, in the meantime, putting their efforts into community development and strengthening the bonds between their members. If they achieve their cohousing community, they will be the first such development by older people in the United Kingdom. As one member comments, “This sort of housing will break new ground. I need not be reduced to one of those sad characters that face you in old people’s homes. I can grow old in good company and remain active, and when I heard of the cohousing movement, I thought—yes, I want to be part of that.”9 Only two housing cooperatives exist in Britain that have recruited older people, although there are also members of long-existing cooperatives who are aging. In the country that started the cooperative movement, the cooperative tradition does not have much of a hold and has been depressed by the rampant individualism of the past two decades. However, there are signs now of a surge of interest among older as well as younger Britons in cohousing, as a possible way of life for the future in a society that is planning to use up good land in building millions more individual houses for an ever-increasing population of singles.
While living in community offers many positive challenges and opportunities for people in the later years of their lives, it is not a problem-free experience. Where people share space there will always be personality conflicts, communication difficulties, and power struggles. None of the examples cited so far are exempt from this. In part, such struggles are integral to the endeavor—conflict can be dynamic and creative and should be viewed as such. Set against the difficulties of living completely alone, the potential for conflict or disagreement may be seen by many as a price worth paying for the chance of new friendships and wider interaction. Older people may also be able to bring the maturity of a lifetime of experience to the conflict resolution process. For some, this will be the wisdom distilled from having lived in communal settings in their youth. For others, it will be a new experience, but one for which they are prepared in part by living in and managing a family. The other side of the coin, however, is that many people, especially women, who are newly freed from the task of managing a family are keen to enjoy their newfound liberation and their personal space. Some of these people will face a conflict between their desire to avoid the responsibilities of a close domestic group and their need for the continuing intimacy they knew from family life. This may be a very British perspective to end on, but the safeguarding of one’s personal space and privacy is singularly important to most people over the age of 50 years, even where they are conscious of a need for community. Not only have they worked hard all their lives to create their own home, but, with the passing of years, they may have grown used to their own company and their own territory. They are likely progressively to lose the flexibility, the ability to accept abrupt change, and the tolerance of discomfort they had in their youth. They are likely to be more set in their views and less ready to come to grips with a diversity of opinion. All these are factors that need to be considered in making choices for an alternative way of living late in life. The reality is, that for a minority of very old people who go into a form of residential care and for the very many who continue to live alone, the range of choice is extremely limited and far from comfortable. Making your own choice at a more vigorous stage of your life of a community where you are a voting shareholder is preferable to ending up with no choice. The best community for you is one where you feel you can make a real contribution, have a sense of shared control over decisions that affect you, and have a choice of compatible companions. It is where you can enjoy as much or as little social interaction as you determine, where you can have your own front door, and a sense of being in your own home. It is ideally an environment that is physically designed for you to grow older in so that you don’t have to move out later. There are such communities. Where they don’t exist, they can be developed. Go for it!
- 1. D. and D. Counts. Over the Next Hill: an Ethnography of RVing seniors in North America. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1996.
- 2. M. Brenton. Choice, Autonomy and Mutual Support: Older Women’s Collaborative Living Arrangements. York, England: J. Rowntree Foundation and York Press, 1999.
- 3. Altus, Deborah. “Growing Older in Community,” Communities magazine, No. 89, Winter 1995.
- 4. Carpenter, Bevelyn. “Growth and Well-Being in a Senior Co-op,” Communities magazine, No. 89, Winter 1995.
- 5. Doyle, V. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. Vancouver, Canada: Simon Frazer University.
- 6. McCamant, K. and C. Durrett. CoHousing: a Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1988.
- 7. Brenton, M. “We’re in Charge” CoHousing Communities of Older People in the Netherlands: Lessons for Britain? Bristol, England: Policy Press, 1998.
- 8. Brenton, M. Choice, Autonomy and Mutual Support: Older Women’s Collaborative Living Arrangements. York, England: J. Rowntree Foundation and York Publishing Services, 1999. (A quote from a member of Dutch cohousing group.)
- 9. Meredeen, Shirley. Growing Old Disgracefully Network, personal communication.
- Author bio: Maria Brenton is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, England, and a member of the British CoHousing Communities Foundation.