A few years back, we learned of a successful experiment in communal retirement living pursued by some old friends of ours in Australia. They had joined with two other couples, and built a special home to their requirements. While each couple has private sleeping quarters, they share most of the 3500 square-foot house. They love it!
What first caught our attention was the possibility of saving money, retiring sooner, and traveling more.
However, the more we looked into it, the more we discovered that the real value of their arrangement was the new community that came with it: something equivalent to a new family.
As we approach the next phase of our lives, we can feel our old communities slipping away. Our kids are preparing to leave home – we think. When we retire from our current jobs, we will quickly lose touch with former colleagues. Our friends are beginning to retire and move away – some to the countryside, some overseas. We ourselves plan to move out of the City, and expect to spend more of the year abroad.
We watched what had happened to our parents, aunts, and uncles. Many of them ended up living alone for the final years of their lives. Some of them were shepherded into assisted living complexes when living alone became too uncertain. Even for those who managed to stay independent – often with the help of several nearby grown children – the solo years struck us as missing something. Was there a better way?
Cheryl and I have valued our privacy over the years. We started our family in a development of five and ten-acre wooded lots. We later enjoyed spending time with our boys at our off-grid island cabin. Our retirement dream at one time included a 40-acre spread of wild countryside.
Now our perceptions are changing. Selling the island cabin may have heralded this change; we thought it would be too isolated as we got older. Our experience with our own parents was pivotal: we would probably live longer than they did, and – like most boomers – we have fewer children to rely on, children who are unlikely to live in the neighbourhood. The same demographic shift likely means that the cost of assisted living will escalate while the quality of life in those complexes will decline.
Our reading has also underscored the importance of community. The declining birthrate worldwide will make it harder to replace the old networks of support we are losing as we transition into the next phase of our lives. Initiatives such as Blue Zones have shown how critical maintaining community is to our health and happiness as we age. This aligns with advice on nurturing your communities in books such as Flourish and Younger Next Year. We have all read by now how we can keep our brains younger by engaging in mental activity such as language skills and problem solving. Living with other people is one way to ensure that kind of mental workout.
We’re now in the process of realigning our personal tradeoffs between privacy and community. Can we construct a future for ourselves that replaces the communities we are losing? We’re taking steps to reach out and join or create new communities for various activities.
What about collaborative living? Is there a solution that will work for us? Our friends in Australia had known their housemates for many years before moving in together. When we took inventory of our own circles, we found very few possible candidates – when we broached the subject with some of those, they soon announced they were moving out of town. Coincidence, we’re sure!
Can we find new partners for such a venture? Perhaps. It’s not a trivial exercise. The householders and our friends call themselves The Shedders – primarily because of the physical and emotional baggage they had to “shed” in order to make living together work. Will our circumstances dictate a different form of collaboration? How far are we willing to go in trading our privacy for community? We are grappling with now with these questions. We’ll share some of what we learn over the months ahead.
Here are some of the sources that have influenced our journey.
- Shedders: This is Heather Bolstler’s personal blog about the journey to their collaborative retirement home. The earlier entries are now available in this eminently readable Kindle eBook. The Shedders are by no means the only ones to have made this work. “My House Our House” profiles a group of three women who turned a preexisting house into a collaborative housing venture. With an ageing population and lingering economic malaise, we predict a lot more of these in the coming decade.
- Blue Zones: A research project into longevity and happiness has identified nine factors that support healthy ageing. Community plays a big role.
- Younger Next Year: The authors’ program on how to “live strong, fit, and sexy – until you’re 80 and beyond” has three legs, “exercise, nutrition, and (perhaps surprisingly) connection and commitment.”
- Flourish: In his book on “authentic happiness” in the tradition of positive psychology, author Martin Seligman argues that relationships are one of the five critical factors in a structure he dubs PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.
Our own recent experience – such as our recent cycle trip in Provence – has underscored our own need for community.
- And a growing flood of reports like this one in the New York Times, “A Longer Life is Lived with Company” – and “A Group Solution to Growing Older” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
One of our reasons for starting this blog is to reach out to a wider circle in our search for community. We’d love to hear from you on this subject.