Until recently, the living options for those in the “third third” of life were limited: living alone, moving in with your kids, or going to a traditional retirement community. But now, people across the country are re-imagining their lives in retirement. They are coming up with a remarkable number of alternatives. Among them:
- Housing cooperatives, from mobile home parks in rural New Hampshire and Oregon, to high-rise apartments in New York City and Minnesota.
- Co-housing, both multigenerational and senior– intentional communities, usually built from the ground up, and designed architecturally and organizationally to foster friendship and neighborliness.
- The Village model, a fast-growing neighbors-helping-neighbors membership organization.
- “NORCs” — naturally occurring retirement communities–neighborhoods where a critical mass of people have raised their children and stayed put and are now receiving an array of supportive services.
- Community Without Walls in Princeton, New Jersey, where people have formed friendship and support network.
- Senior artist colonies, designed for aging actors, writers and painters—and those who long to explore their creative side for the first time.
- Niche communities of like-minded folks, whether gays and lesbians, retired union postal workers, Zen Buddhists or Unitarians. In Texas there’s even a community of aging RV lifers who have formed a loose-knit community they call “assisted living lite.”
- House sharing, whether among best friends, family members, or total strangers.
Perhaps the most inspiring option was founded by the nonprofit Generations of Hope. Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon, and Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Illinois are two of the purpose-built communities that support families who are adopting children from the foster care system. Each community includes a large number of older people who live there for reduced rent in exchange for volunteering their time in the community. Often acting as “bonus grandparents,” they form deep bonds with the children who typically thrive in this safe and loving environment.
Many of these alternatives are surprisingly affordable. Some are also more environmentally sustainable as groups share resources, using less energy and leaving a smaller footprint on the land.
What they all have in common is that they are rooted in two important values: they allow people to live with autonomy and independence on the one hand, and with close relationships and community on the other –what some aging advocates call “interdependence.”
I’ve come to believe that interdependence and not independence should be our goal as we grow older—and perhaps throughout our lives. It’s why I have trouble with the popular concept of “aging in place.” Aging in place can be terrific—or it can be isolating, marginalizing, and lonely. Or what if your “place” is hopeless to navigate if you have trouble walking or is in a neighborhood where you must have a car to get anywhere? These are the questions we need to wrestle with now—well before we need support from others.
What keeps us from asking these questions is, of course, our denial that we’re growing old. But the more we’re in denial, the more vulnerable we are to either living alone and isolated or ending up in institutional settings not of our choosing. And in contrast, the more intentional and proactive we are, the greater the chance we’ll live surrounded by a network of friendship and support.
It turns out that social support not only makes life more fun, it’s actually better for our physical health. Strong relationships are a foundational piece of healthy aging, according to a growing body of research. Loneliness and isolation can literally be deadly. Studies have found that loneliness negatively affects our stress hormones, our immune systems, blood pressure and even levels of inflammation. At the same time, studies show a real health benefit to having a strong social network. In fact a meta-analysis of 148 studies found that the influence of social connection on our mortality was surprisingly strong—not only on our mental health, as you might expect, but on how long we live. The researchers found that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death was “comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption” and was even more important than physical inactivity and obesity. So, happily, at least as important as jogging or eating kale is having people to pal around with.
The flowering of new ways to live is likely to grow, as my generation of baby boomers contemplates our next chapter. Whether it’s using neighborhood listservs and block parties to foster connections or shaking up the dice and starting new communities based on a common interest, the possibilities are only limited by our resourcefulness and creativity—and intention. Procrastinating won’t get us where we want to go.