Living at Home, But Not Home Alone

  • Post author:

It’s a fate that boomers and older adults seek to escape: moving into a facility or in with their children. Even if they continue to live at home, they want to avoid the loneliness their parents or neighbors may have felt in their later years.

These older individuals are looking for a new way to live. They still want to remain at home, but they long for a sense of community–surrounded by caring people who watch out for each other. And many older adults also realize that getting help with the ordinary tasks–someone who can provide a ride to the doctor or pick up an item at the grocery store–can go far to preserve their independence.

So boomers, and many who are older, are redesigning how and where to live as they age. “Until now, there were only traditional retirement communities, the dreaded skilled nursing facilities, moving in with our families or living alone,” says Beth Baker, who has visited dozens of housing models for her book, With a Little Help From Our Friends: Creating Community As We Grow Older (Vanderbilt University Press, $25). “People have begun to realize that if they’re creative, there are a lot more interesting and fulfilling ways they can choose to live.” We’ve reviewed three “aging in place” housing options.

Your Modern Commune

If you like the idea of spending a lot of time with your neighbors, consider cohousing. Residents typically buy their apartments or townhouses and jointly own outdoor space and a “common house.” There, residents can cook in a spacious kitchen and share a meal together (or not) once a week, conduct meetings, play board games, watch a video or exercise. Every common house has at least one guest bedroom that could be used in the future by a shared caregiver.

Usually, each of the 20 or so housing units has an inviting front porch clustered around a central walking path or courtyard. These outdoor spaces offer an opportunity for informal interaction on the way to the mailbox or car, or perhaps a spontaneous invitation to have a glass of wine at a neighbor’s home.

Most of the 150 U.S. cohousing projects–100 more are in development–are intergenerational, for young families, singles and older adults. Six of the developments are “elder” or “senior” cohousing, for those 50 and older.

In most cases, cohousing communities are started by prospective residents, who often partner with a developer to design and finance the project. A handful of communities have been founded by architects and developers who then organize a group of future residents to buy into a project. In either case, you can join at any phase of the process, including after completion.

Cohousing communities use a condominium structure, with a homeowners association and monthly dues. Residents make all the rules and maintain the property. Its distinctive quality is the level of community involvement. Owners are expected to show up for monthly meetings and to volunteer for a committee or a regular task, such as cleaning the common house, landscaping, building maintenance or bookkeeping. These groups can hire services to do the work.

California architect Kathryn McCamant has developed or consulted on more than 50 communities. “This housing model is following the changing demographics of the country, from the focus on raising kids to aging in place,” says McCamant, who, with her husband Charles Durrett, brought the concept to the U.S. from Denmark in the late 1980s.

Eva Mesmer, 75, and her husband, Gene, 81, originally moved from Missouri to the Colorado mountains to be near their son, but found the location too remote. In 2004, they joined Boulder’s intergenerational Wild Sage cohousing. “We’re always busy doing something,” Eva says. The kids call Eva “Oma,” which is German for grandmother. “I’m everyone’s grandmother. That’s what keeps me young,” she says.

Sara Geber, 65, and her husband, Chuck, 63, prefer the adults-only model. In April, they sold their four-bedroom, three-level suburban home with a pool and bought a $1.1 million, 1,750-square-foot, one-level condo at Silicon Valley’s Mountain View Community Cohousing, in Mountain View, Cal.

When the community opens in September, residents in their early fifties to their eighties will live in 19 units in two three-story buildings. They will be just a few blocks from top-notch theater, restaurants and high-speed trains to San Francisco and San Jose. “The whole idea of cohousing is that you become not just a geographic community, but an intentional community–more in the old-fashioned sense, where people look after one another,” says Geber, who has no children.

When Eva Mesmer’s cancer returned last year, one neighbor gave her a footbath with rose petals. Another created a Web site for volunteers to help. And when her husband injured himself falling off his bike, neighbors built the couple a ramp.

Before Mike Contino left the hospital after knee surgery, “nurses were questioning me as to whether I had people to help out when I got home. I had to laugh–about 45 people,” says Contino, who lives at Wolf Creek Lodge, in Grass Valley, Cal. Neighbors helped Contino, 69, with shopping and errands.

But cohousing is not a substitute for long-term care. If residents can’t hire professional care or have serious cognitive impairment, they may have to move. Even so, McCamant, who lives in cohousing in Nevada City, Cal., says, “Once people get to know each other they tend to do more than they thought they would.”

Some may find cohousing confining, however. You have privacy in your own home, but your life is deeply intertwined with others. If you don’t want to get to know your neighbors, pitch in and make all decisions by consensus, cohousing is not for you.

Cohousing homes generally range in price from $200,000 to $600,000, although a one-bedroom home in Stillwater, Okla., is $150,000, and units at California’s Mountain View and Boulder’s senior-only Silver Sage (across the street from Wild Sage) can reach $1.5 million. Ten percent of projects allow renting, so that might be a good way to test-drive this lifestyle.

To find communities, go to the Web site of the Cohousing Association of the United States at You can find resources to start your own cohousing group at the Web site.

Home Sweet Home Sharing

Home sharing, where you have your own bedroom and bathroom and share the kitchen and other space, is no longer just a Golden Girls TV show. Boomers and older adults, often women, are finding that having housemates makes real-life sense. By pooling financial resources, you can save money on upkeep and utilities. You’ll also have companionship and feel safer.

You might move into someone else’s house, have them move into yours, or rent or buy together. Some are buying a share of another person’s house or condo. If you don’t need the extra money, you could offer a room in your home in exchange for services, such as caregiving or running errands.

Divorced after 25 years of marriage, Connie Woodberry found herself alone in her four-bedroom, Dummerston, Vt., house. Then she learned of a professor at a nearby college who needed a place to live. That was seven years ago.

Her housemate pays $500 a month, which Woodberry, 67, uses for taxes. She has built a porch and installed solar panels, projects she could not have done without the extra money. “This is far more than just having someone live in your house,” says Woodberry, who has two grown children. “We’re good friends.” The women eat dinner together most nights.

For organizations that match housemates, check the National Shared Housing Resource Center Web site at The site lists programs and consultants by state.

Take care when choosing a housemate. For example, if you’re a quiet neatnik who goes to bed early, you probably don’t want a messy night owl who loves to party at home.

You should set specific house rules and put them in writing. The rules could cover such issues as smoking, overnight guests, pets and use of the common rooms. Meet in person unless the prospective home sharer lives far away–you could then use Skype or FaceTime. Check references, and make sure the person pays his or her share before moving in.

A variation on the home-sharing theme is “cohouseholding,” where unrelated people, often friends, own or rent one house together. In 2010, Oz Ragland, a former Microsoft manager, and his wife bought a $680,000 house on 1.3 acres in Bothell, Wash., outside Seattle, with people they knew: another married couple and a single woman, then ages 54 to 71.

The housemates formed a limited liability corporation to own and operate the property. The residents pay rent to the LLC, which pays for taxes, utilities and maintenance. The five residents own different percentages of the LLC. Some cohouseholds choose instead to have all of the owners’ names on the deed and mortgage. Hire a lawyer to work out the ownership details.

Co-owners need to decide what happens if one wants out. In the Ragland cohousehold, that person gives notice, and all the owners try to agree on how much money the departing member receives. If they can’t agree, an appraisal sets the overall market price and that person receives his or her share–either immediately or over five years with interest.

One reason it works well: The house has a lot of private space for each couple or person. “I couldn’t possibly own a house like this by myself–and with no mortgage,” says Ragland, who is a founder of this cooperative housing movement. For details, go to the Web site of the Cohouseholding Project at

Also on the horizon: friends living in the same building or next door but not under one roof. Within 10 to 15 years, Ruth Margolis, an Atlanta software industry analyst, and her husband, James, expect to rent in the same building or next door to a couple from North Carolina, as well as a couple and a divorced friend from Florida. These days, “we travel together, visit one another and are a bit miserable when we’re not together. It’s lovely to be planning for a time when we can all be together,” Margolis says.

They have not chosen their destination city, but are considering several cities in the South. They all have long-term-care insurance, but if anyone needs professional care, “we will help each other with caregiving as we have in the past for other health-related issues,” Margolis says.

Village People

The “village” model provides a way to stay in your home while getting support from your neighbors. You can either join a membership organization in your geographic area or create your own village with neighbors.

Consider it one-stop shopping with a personal touch: You call a central number where paid staff or volunteers handle your requests. The staff could provide names of vetted and discounted service providers, such as home health care agencies or plumbers. Or, more often, it will arrange help from volunteers, such as someone to walk a dog, take a resident to a doctor or even change a light bulb.

The villages also create opportunities to socialize with other members, whether it’s an organized dinner or a trip to the museum. Some larger villages arrange overseas travel. Yearly fees average $400 for an individual and $650 for a household.

There’s an intergenerational benefit, too. The high school student down the street may provide computer tutoring to an older neighbor. A senior also could volunteer–perhaps a retired accountant could help with a neighbor’s taxes. Older village members who volunteer or who receive help from volunteers are less likely to feel isolated.

Indeed, the villages’ benefits extend beyond help with an errand or two. Andrew Scharlach, professor of aging at the School of Social Welfare at University of California, Berkeley, has conducted four surveys of villages. “There is preliminary evidence that members use the hospital less often than they did before they joined the village,” he says. He also says that residents “report that they’re more confident about their ability to age in place because of the membership.”

Residents in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston started the first village in 2002. Since then, 144 villages have opened nationwide, with another 115 in development in cities, suburbs and rural areas.

Nearly three years ago, Gloria Gordon, 91, a former psychologist and book editor, hatched the idea of starting a village with three friends in their St. Louis neighborhood. They bought a how-to manual put out by the Beacon Hill Village and visited a village in Chicago before launching STL Village in June, for residents 50 and older. It hired a part-time executive director.

Gordon lives in a high-rise, while some members are in single-family homes. Her children live in New York City and Boston. “Joining the village gives me a sense of support and security about the future,” Gordon says. “It also lets my children feel okay about having a 90-year-old mom living independently a thousand miles away.”