The Longevity

Residents play at a Treehouse Community, which aims to provide a new model of intergenerational community for children in the foster care system.

Housing That Lessens Loneliness

By Sally Abrahms
October 5, 2017 6:46 amPublished

The headlines are roaring with research about the impact of social isolation and loneliness on older adults. Studies show that they can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and result in a 26-32 percent rise in premature death.

But what if your housing choices in later life could mitigate that isolation? What if loneliness were to be replaced with meaningful connections? Increasingly, boomers and seniors are thinking about not only where they want to live, but with whom they want to grow old.

One out of three people aged 50+ are divorced, widowed or never married. Late life divorce, also known as “gray divorce,” is on the rise. Even when there is a partner, some don’t have children or if they do, they’re far away or not involved in their lives. The right housing arrangement becomes an even more important consideration.

And then there is moving and mortality. When you’re older, beloved friends, neighbors and family may pick up stakes or get ill. Joy Loverde, author of The Complete Other Care Planner, calls it the “revolving door theory.”

Says Loverde: “We must get used to the revolving door of people coming in and out of our lives. We need to become used to, and good at, accumulating friends. People don’t plan on that door regarding housing and isolation.”

Sara Zeff Geber, 67, and her husband Chuck, 66, expect to stay in their house another 10 years or so and are already thinking about next steps. The Santa Rosa, CA, retirement coach and coauthor of Live Smart After 50 has no children. She has coined the term “Solo Aging” for others like her.

Of course, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you are lonely, but it often does. “People who are alone or don’t have kids need to live in places where there are structured ways to get together,” says Geber. “If you leave it to chance, most people will stay where they are and that’s when loneliness and isolation can creep in. There’s no safety net for solo agers.”

Redefining Aging in Place

Purists think that “aging in place” means you grow old in your own home vs. a nursing home. But “home” can also be moving somewhere else where you have friends and connections.

After all, you can have the most beautiful house for aging in place—wide doorways, no steps, and a first-floor bedroom—but if you are lonely and socially isolated, that curbless shower won’t make you happy.

Creating Caring Communities

Fortunately, there are housing options that encourage interaction and promote community.  Among them are:

– Homesharing, or living with a friend or stranger

– Cohousing (having your own place, but sharing some common space and weekly meals cooked by rotating residents

– An intentional community with a social purpose

– A niche community where other like-minded people are, whether it’s on or near a college campus and taking classes, a 50+ development for Jimmy Buffett fans, or even nudists (yes, in Florida!)

– Membership in a Village or organization in your local area. You stay in your home but feel part of a community, having access to vetted service providers and arranged cultural and social events

– A Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) that has graduated levels of care

Home Sharing a Growing Trend

Kathleen Stanley, a former editor at the Washington Post and Janet Vincent, a divorced, part-time Episcopal priest, became friends in D.C. years ago.

In 2014, after Stanley’s divorce, she and Vincent, now both 62, decided to buy a house together in Cottekill, New York. For Vincent, having Stanley around to “share your life with is a kinder, gentler way to live.” Stanley thinks that sharing a house with a friend “makes the prospect of growing older not so frightening.”

They intentionally bought a one-story house and installed grab bars in the bathroom. “We make a lot of decisions based on what might happen in the future,” says Stanley. (That doesn’t include if either Vincent or Stanley fall in love with someone!)

It makes sense that there would be a demand for home sharing. Many older adults live in empty houses with extra bedrooms and feel squeezed financially. Others need to find a place to cut down on housing costs, not to mention have someone who asks about their day.

According to Harvard University’s 2016 Joint Center for Housing Studies report, one out of three households will be headed by someone age 65+ by 2035, with an expected 62 percent increase from 2015.

Startups have taken note. Silvernest is an online company that connects older adults who want to live together. In the last 12 months, it has grown from 3,000 to 22,000 users.

Nesterly, an app created by two former MIT students, matches older homeowners with graduate students looking for reduced rent in exchange for chores. Founders Noelle Marcus and Rachel Goor also see it as a way for older adults to stay socially connected.

Cohousing Combines Privacy and Community

In cohousing, residents buy or rent a townhouse or condo-like unit. There’s shared outdoor space and a “common house” with a kitchen, dining room gathering space, and anything else residents want (a media or workout room, perhaps). All rules are decided by consensus.

There are more than 100 U.S. cohousing developments, both intergenerational and age 55+. Most offer affordable housing. Unless it’s in an urban area, each unit has a welcoming front porch. The set-up is reminiscent of neighborhoods of the past where people knew and cared about one another.

In 2015, Elisabeth Seaman, 78, moved into a two bedroom, first floor unit in the high-end Silicon ValleyMountain View Cohousing Community. Her three children, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren don’t live nearby.

“The idea of community and building relationships appealed to me,” says Seaman, who works part-time in conflict management.

Residents range from their 50s to their 80s. Besides the common house, there’s a two-bedroom guesthouse where future caregivers can live.

Communities with a Social Mission

This is a new kind of housing model that is increasingly appealing to many older adults. It’s an intentional community designed to help nurture and support children who have come out of the foster care system and their adoptive parents.

Emily Georgia Lewis, 72, moved to the Treehouse Community in Easthampton, MA, five years ago. (There are four others nationwide with a similar foster care mission.) Social service had always been a part of Lewis’s life, whether it was teaching in an elementary school or being a house parent in a group home for court placed children. “I had been thinking more about where I wanted to be as I grew older and the goals I had,” she says.

She heard about Treehouse from a friend. Lewis rents an affordable housing cottage in the development and has immersed herself in the lives of the former foster kids and their parents. There is a social worker and staff on site to offer guidance to her and other volunteers.

Lewis babysits when parents want to go out and helps the children with homework. “We cook, draw, talk about feelings, go on field trips and more,” she says Lewis. “We learn a lot from one another.” She feels a tremendous sense of purpose.

What’s more, she’s a member of two adult groups, one of which is a monthly support group of peers who talk about the issues of aging. (There have been more than a dozen deaths since Treehouse opened 11 years ago.)

Lewis’s cozy cottage overlooks the mountains of Western Massachusetts “and if I feel the need for human contact, all I need to do is go for a walk,” she says. “Invariably I see someone I know. As I age and will likely slow down, I believe that Treehouse will not let me ever feel isolated or inactive.”

More communities are being created with other social missions. In Washington, D.C., older adults live in a building, nurturing and interacting with young mothers who have come out of foster care and their children. And, this year, Bastion, an intentional community in New Orleans launched to support war veterans with traumatic brain injuries and other ongoing rehabilitative needs and their families.

Mark Dunham, an independent housing consultant, believes the intergenerational social purpose model, will prove popular. He’s working with Howard County in Maryland to build an affordable housing  community for kids and adults with autism as well as families without disabled members.

Some of the residents might be parents of young adults with autism who want to be near them but not under the same roof. “After age 21, there are few options for housing and supports for young adults with autism,” says Dunham. There will be direct support professionals providing care and living there, with some shared caretaking. That might include helping an elder and a young adult.

As the number of older adults swells, there will undoubtedly be more creative housing options to keep them socially engaged. Perhaps feeling valued is the greatest antidote to loneliness.