Site Plan for Elderberry
Site Plan for Elderberry Retirement Village, Rougemont. Image courtesy of the Elderberry website

As baby boomers age, they’re looking for different models of care that will keep them in their homes. Community is the answer.

By Taylor Sisk

Against the stream of an increasingly virtual world, folks of all ages are seeking community  – and discovering it.

This impulse to share time and space is gaining particular resonance with seniors, who, while protective of their independence, face the golden years having lost or distant loved ones, even as they realize the need for assistance.

Some elder North Carolinians are looking for ways to insure they never have to leave their own homes, that means exploring alternatives.

One option is co-housing, a concept growing in popularity across the country with families and single adults of all ages. In co-housing environments, residents commit to living as a community and take an active role in designing and maintaining that community.

Site Plan for Elderberry
Site Plan for Elderberry Retirement Village, Rougemont. Image courtesy of the Elderberry website

The Cohousing Association of the U.S. lists 11 co-housing communities, either completed or under development, in North Carolina. These include Westwood in Asheville; Arcadia and Pacifica in Chapel Hill/Carrboro; and Central Park, now in the design stage in Durham.

But communities-by-design strictly for seniors is a more nascent phenomenon. Its attractions for many seniors are manifest: the comfort and convenience of advancing into the latter years among peers, sharing responsibilities and resources and enjoying one another’s company.

One such seniors community is now launching here in North Carolina: Elderberry Cohousing is welcoming healthy, active adults 50 years and older to live and farm on 10 acres of land in Rougemont, in Person County, 30 minutes from downtown Durham.

It takes a village

Rosemary Hyde recognized the attractions of co-housing. A former ethnographer and college professor, and now a homeopath, Hyde gave some consideration to living in a co-housing community, but soon realized it wasn’t for her.

“Everything everybody did had to be agreed upon by committee,” she said. She’d experienced the committee dynamic in her professional life. “I hate committee. I wasn’t going to sentence myself to a life of committee.”

Rosemary Hyde (L) and her late partner Ellen Sheiner
Rosemary Hyde (L) and her late partner Ellen Sheiner

In 2006, Hyde and her late partner, Ellen Scheiner, moved to the Triangle and into the Falconbridge development in Chapel Hill. Soon, both were quite ill – Scheiner with metastatic cancer and Hyde from a tick bite, requiring an extended period of recovery.

It was a very difficult time. “I felt very much alone, having moved into this suburban community,” Hyde said.

The following year, she read an article in the New York Times about Beacon Hill Village and its then-groundbreaking aging-in-place concept. Launched in 2002, Beacon Hill is community of seniors in central Boston helping one another grow older in their own homes.

Beacon Hill is what’s now called a “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community,” a term used to describe neighborhoods – or, in urban areas, buildings – in which the older residents volunteer to help one another, collectively contract for everyday services and organize social events.

According to the Beacon Hill website: “We looked beyond conventional solutions. We wanted more freedom and control than we found in models that focus on single issues, such as housing, medical care, or social activities. We wanted to be active, taking care of ourselves and each other rather than being ‘taken care of.’”

The concept resonates with Mary Fraser, aging transitions coordinator with the Orange County Department on Aging. “It’s about taking back community,” Fraser said, “and really taking care of one another.”

It resonated with Hyde as well. Through her and Scheiner’s difficult transition to the Triangle, she’d come to fully appreciate that community connections are key to coping, and continuing to thrive through difficult situations.

Scheiner died in November 2008. Hyde decided to pursue an ambition for stronger community, with Beacon Hill’s village approach has her guide. She was attracted to the idea of seniors forming community within a broader, multi-generational environment.

“If they can do it there,” she said, “we can do it here.”

Focusing on community

So Hyde ventured out into the cul-de-sacs and condos of Falconbridge and talked with her fellow seniors about initiating such a community. But no one was ready for it – no one seemed to want to acknowledge that they needed the support structure Hyde was proposing.

“So it morphed into, ‘OK; so what we need to focus on isn’t aging but community,’ ” Hyde said. She reserved the Falconbridge clubhouse and held a potluck to brainstorm on “ways we can make this a better neighborhood and enhance our quality of life.”

About 50 people attended, all ages, and out of that came the Traveling Pub, which allows neighbors to connect socially around food and drink, in a different home each time.

“Then when people started to trust one another, they were willing to talk about what it would take to live here comfortably after we might have begun to be afraid to be here because of aging.”

But providing the infrastructure requires professional assistance, and doing so cost effectively requites more members than any one neighborhood is likely to provide.

Map of communities participating in the Village to Village model
Map of communities participating in the Village to Village Network. Click on the map to go to an interactive map at the VtVN website.

So Hyde has teamed up with the Orange County Department on Aging, and Project Compassion, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that provides care-giving support and training, to form “caring communities.” Meadowmont of Chapel Hill also has an aging-in-place community.

Now, Hyde is helping form an umbrella organization called Carolina Villages that aims to share information and pool resources from similar neighborhoods throughout Orange and Durham counties that would like to provide peer services, skilled household assistance and more.

A basic need

Boston’s Beacon Hill Village has grown to some 400 members and has helped launch a movement. People there now administer an organization called the Village-to-Village Network that helps establish and manage aging-in-place communities.

Falconbridge now has about 120 paying members in its village network organization. A need is being met.

“People are responding not only to fear about [reaching] old age but to a sense of loneliness and disconnection,” Hyde said.

The Triangle is full of transplants, people who’ve left families and communities behind, and we all need community, Hyde said. “This is a way of creating a new version of that basic need, one that’s functional and satisfying.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

4 replies on “Aging in Place: NC Seniors are Shaping their Futures”

  1. I agree; community is the answer. It’s too bad that cohousing wasn’t the right fit for Rosemary and Ellen. One size doesn’t fit all and certainly shouldn’t when it comes to the housing options available to senior and elder citizens.

    Cohousing isn’t prescriptive, so perhaps that particular cohousing community wasn’t right for them. From my experiences and understanding of cohousing, reaching consensus is usually easily achievable and definitely rewarding. I haven’t seen the committee process to be a “life sentence” as Rosemary notes; it’s usually once a month with cohousers rotating positions or taking time off as needed/desired. It is actually a neat feature of cohousing to have that interdependence of decision-making, to work through issues and concerns as a team, and find solutions refined with the ideas of others and your own.

    It’s aging in community. Your own place to call home inside a neighborhood of people you’d call friends. Charles Durrett, who brought cohousing to North America, says, “if it doesn’t work socially, why build it?” To see if cohousing is the right fit for you, check out his two most recent books Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, which he authored with his wife Kathryn McCamant, and The Senior Cohousing Handbook, which he authored.

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