Pat Darlington, 59, realized that when she got older, she didn't want to live like her 83-year-old father. It struck her when she was visiting him in Florida and realized he should no longer be driving, only to be told his neighbors had come to the same conclusion long ago. Why hadn't they let her know, the Oklahoma psychologist asked? "We didn't want to get involved," they said.
Their hands-off attitude became the driving force behind Darlington's decision to help create Oakcreek Cohousing Community in Stillwater, Okla. Across the country, senior cohousing, like the one Darlington is planning, is turning into an increasingly popular option for baby boomers and older adults. In these communities, a group shares a property, lives in condos or attached homes clustered together, and shares some weekly dinners, outdoor space and facilities.
On the grounds is a common house, a feature of all cohousing projects, containing a kitchen for preparing communal meals or potluck, a dining and living room, and other rooms, depending on what the group wants. Options might include a media room, an office, a workshop with a kiln, or a fitness or art studio — but the common house always has two or three bedrooms for guests and caregivers, should aging residents need them.
The social interaction often extends beyond the property. If someone wants to go to the movies, for a hike or to the theater, they can send out an e-mail or ask around. There's always an instant buddy, or the space to be alone.
People in Darlington's world are buying into the concept of elder cohousing. So far, at Oakcreek, 12 one- and two-bedroom houses costing $150,000 to $265,000 have been spoken for by residents ages 57 to 84; the group needs to find another eight people to commit to houses so it can break ground this June.
When she reaches her dad's age, Darlington expects to be surrounded by loving, supportive neighbors. She hopes never to be in assisted living or a nursing home — or at least to stay at home as long as possible.
Darlington has seen, firsthand, the life she doesn't want. "I have patients with a ton of money, long-term care insurance and round-the-clock caregivers, and they sit in their lovely homes bored and lonely," says Darlington, a widow whose four children are scattered around the country. "I saw my dad isolated in his own house and that is not how I want to spend the rest of my life. When you go to a financial adviser, you're told to have a diversified portfolio. Cohousing is my social portfolio," she says. "Some people say, 'Why are you doing this? You're only 59.' I want to invest in relationships now so that when I need help, I will already have them. We have choices and don't have to do 'aging' the way it has always been done."
Not that trailblazing boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, would settle for the status quo anyway. They watch their parents decline in institutional settings or cut off from society and vow not to wind up like that. "People are creatively and proactively saying that there are options that might be better," says California architect Charles Durrett, who, along with his wife, Kathryn McCamant, brought the idea of cohousing from Denmark to the United States in the late 1980s. "The trend of senior cohousing is just getting started."