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Interview: Boomers Seek Alternatives To Retirement Homes


award winning journalist Beth Baker

Beth Baker

Award-winning journalist Beth Baker has seen the future, and it doesn’t look like a traditional retirement home.

In her new book, With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older, Baker charts baby boomers’ efforts to imagine new ways of banding together to help each other through old age.

This important book explores these new aging communities and asks tough questions.

To learn more, AHB caught up with Beth Baker in Takoma Park, Maryland, U.S.A.

Ruth Dempsey: A lot of the new options come from the grassroots. So what’s going on?

Beth Baker: We baby boomers are seeing what choices our parents had:

  • traditional retirement communities
  • move in with adult children
  • live alone, and
  • of course, assisted living and nursing homes, which most people dread.

For millions of people, none of these options seem appealing. So, they’re coming up with all sorts of alternatives that give them both independence, on the one hand, and community and relationships, on the other – "interdependence."

RD: You write about "rambling retirees." Who are they?

BB: Those are the footloose folks who pull up roots and live a more nomadic life, either on a houseboat or in a recreation vehicle. I read of at least one elder, whose son signed her up for perpetual cruise ship trips – cheaper than assisted living, he found, but still offering her meals, lodging, medical help on board and activities!

RD: How does the village model work?

BB: The village model, which began more than a decade ago in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, is a membership organization aimed at keeping older people rooted in their long-time communities for as long as they wish.

The organization offers a one-call way to get help for non-medical services such as transportation, vetting of home contractors, computer training, errands and so on.

Villages typically also hold social gatherings and give people a way to have both purpose and connection. Help is provided primarily by volunteers (who are often the older members themselves), and most villages have at least one paid staff member to coordinate things.

Members pay dues and also hold fund raisers or receive grants, to cover their bills. Dues range from $50 a year to $900. Each village has its own structure. Financial stability is one big challenge most villages face.

A few, such as Neighbors Assisting Neighbors in the Bannockburn neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland, are free and rely solely on volunteers.

RD: House sharing is popular.

BB: This is suddenly everywhere in the media. A woman near me in the Washington D.C. area just launched a golden girls network, an online matching service for women aged 50 to 70 who want to find housemates.

Nonprofits for several years now have been matching low-income home seekers to older homeowners who are having trouble maintaining their houses. Often the tenant will get reduced or even free rent in exchange for helping the older person. The nonprofit helps vet the tenants and is on hand for mediating any difficulties.

And then there is also the option of best friends moving in together. A wonderful example is in Pittsburgh where three friends bought a house together and ended up writing a book about their experiences to help others share a home successfully.

It’s called My House, Our House and I highly recommend it. House sharing, of course, can be far more affordable than living alone.

RD: Can you give me a snapshot of a senior artist colony?

BB: The ones I write about were initiated by a visionary guy named Tim Carpenter, who founded a nonprofit called EngAGE in Los Angeles. EngAGE provides high quality creative arts programming for low-income people.

EngAGE also began organizing senior housing communities that are rich in artistic opportunities:

  • places with studios
  • theatres
  • pottery kilns, and so on.

Some residents are lifelong artists, while others are exploring their creative side for the first time.

The residents I spoke to at the Burbank Senior Artist Colony had written poetry, produced plays, painted and set up an intergenerational garden with the at-risk students of a high school next door.

The building itself was filled with artistic works created by residents and had a small theater and several studios.

All the senior artist colonies have a significant number of apartments dedicated as affordable housing. It’s a great model and Tim Carpenter is now expanding them beyond California.

RD: You describe a mobile home cooperative in central Oregon . . .

BB: Housing cooperatives range from high rise apartments in New York City to manufactured housing (mobile homes or trailers) in rural areas.

One that I visited in Oregon, called Green Pastures Senior Housing Cooperative, was organized by the homeowners after they nearly lost the land the community sits on. The previous owner died and the new owners wanted to sell it off to a developer.

A nonprofit helped the residents organize a co-op and they were able to buy the land. They now have a secure future and one of the most affordable situations imaginable. The homes themselves can be as low as $17,000 for one in fine condition, and the monthly co-op fee for property taxes, landscaping and other shared costs is $350.

In addition, the process of organizing the co-op brought the residents much closer together, and they now help each other out in many ways.

RD: What about the gay and lesbian community? You mention Triangle Square in Hollywood.

BB: Traditionally, retirement communities and long-term care facilities have not been welcoming to gay people.

In response, several communities have been established. Some are affordable, such as Triangle Square in Hollywood, and others are far more costly and market themselves as resorts.

Regardless, they are meant to provide older gays and lesbians a safe and secure community, where they can be comfortable being themselves.

RD: And you discovered several niche communities, including one for retired postal workers.

BB: Nalcrest in central Florida was created by the postal workers union to provide a comfortable retirement for their members.

The property includes a fishing lake, swimming pool, their own post office (of course), a chapel and a restaurant. There seems to be a strong sense of camaraderie among the people who live there, because of their shared work history.

Many are very active in the wider community, volunteering for the rescue squad and active in local civic affairs. Apartments range from just $395 to $520 a month.

RD: You seemed especially impressed by the Generations of Hope community?

BB: Yes, this is truly the most inspiring model I came across, and I hope it spreads.

The founder, Brenda Eheart, was an expert in foster care for children and she’d grown frustrated with the dismal lives many of these kids lead, despite the good intentions of the social service system. She created an intentional community in Rantoul, Illinois, called Hope Meadows, for foster children and their adoptive families and for older people who want to live there.

The older people get reduced rent in exchange for volunteering their time in the community. Many form deep bonds with the children and act as "bonus" grandparents of sorts.

The families get other onsite counseling and support, and the children for the first time have normal lives. As evidence of the community’s success: 100 per cent of Hope Meadows kids graduate from high school, while the national average for foster children is 30 per cent.

There are now two similar communities, Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon and Treehouse in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

Brenda Eheart has a nonprofit, Generations of Hope, which seeks to expand the model.

RD: Did you find models that are helpful for people with Alzheimer’s?

BB: One that I find promising was founded by a physician in Maine, Allan Teel, who was tired of traditional long-term care and saw how resistant his patients were to moving.

He ended up founding Full Circle America. It combines off-the-shelf technology, such as webcams and simple Skype-type communication, with volunteers and paid help to keep people in their own homes. These people would have normally moved to assisted living or a nursing home.

I visited one woman with mid-stage Alzheimer’s. She was still able to live on her own because of this system of distance monitoring and lots of involvement of a devoted daughter and volunteers, who stopped by during the day.

Dr. Teel believes his model can affordably allow most people to remain in their homes until the very end. Full Circle America offers franchise opportunities to entrepreneurs or nonprofits to set up a similar system in their locale.

I think the combination of new technology and strong community opens up all sorts of ways to help people manage and avoid institutions.
beth baker book - with a little help from my friends
RD: Finally, what advice would you give readers grappling with where to live in retirement?

BB: At the end of my book, I have a list of questions to help people sort that out.

You need to think about:

  • whether you want to live around kids or not
  • if you want to stay rooted where you are or shake up the dice, and
  • whether you already have a strong network of friends, family and neighbors, and if not, how might you change your life to have that.

That is key.

Something like a warm climate is way down the list, in my view. We need a circle of people around us who will give us friendship and we need to have lives of meaning and purpose – that’s what makes for a good old age.