Where do retired recreational vehicle enthusiasts go when they get too old to hit the road? Some are parking - permanently - at the Escapees Care Center, an adult day-care center in Livingston, Texas, where they can live in their RVs and pay monthly fees that cover whatever care they may need and commune with other enthusiasts.
The center is just one example among dozens of innovative communal retirement living arrangements springing up around the country as boomers seek out alternatives to traditional senior living models. Some support aging in place, such as Beacon Hill Village in Boston, a grassroots community founded by a small group of neighborhood residents. Others involve moves to new communities of like-minded souls - retired postal workers, LGBT seniors, artists, Zen Buddhists and, yes, RV lovers.
Beth Baker, a journalist who specializes in aging, explores alternative communities in her new book, "With a Little Help from our Friends: Creating Community as we Grow Older" (Vanderbilt University Press). I spoke with her recently about what she learned about alternative communities. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Your first book dealt with the transformation of traditional nursing homes ("Old Age in a New Age: The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes," Vanderbilt University Press, 2007). How did that lead you to write about alternative communities for aging?
There's a movement among nursing homes to get away from the medical model and create places much more like home that are rooted in relationships among the residents. But when I was working on my first book, all I heard was that no one wants to go to a nursing home, and the pace of change in that business is discouraging. I kept hearing about all these new models, and I was curious how far they could go to help people.
The innovation going on is exciting - people are trying to be more intentional about their next chapters. We've been stuck with a one-size-fits-all solution - you get old and frail and go into an institution. Somehow we need to get comfortable with the idea of very local solutions that are going to involve a mix of volunteer and paid assistance, and a better balance of independence and interdependence.
You explore nine different alternative community options - everything from the villages movement to co-housing projects, which are intentional communities built from the ground up or adapted from other spaces. You also delve into more simple ideas, like house sharing. Which of all these ideas are getting traction?
Villages and house sharing are growing the most rapidly. The village movement started in 2001, and 125 have opened around the country, with another 100 more in the planning stage. It's a "neighbors helping neighbors" approach, with the aim of providing support and friendship to people who want to age in their homes. They rely on a mix of paid staff and volunteers who help members with everything from transportation to computer know-how and grocery shopping. They're really great - they provide support and friendship to people who want to age in their homes, although most have been started in upper-income or upper-middle income neighborhoods.
I think the jury is still out on the financial sustainability of villages, which rely on a membership fee model. And one issue you hear about is that most villages don't want to be seen as social service agencies, so they don't provide help once people encounter more serious health issues.
House sharing is simple, and it's catching on especially well with women who are living alone. There are matchmaking services now to help people find each other and share a home. It's fairly simple to implement, and it doesn't require such a radical lifestyle change.
The most inspiring model I found was Generations of Hope, an intentional community in Rantoul, Illinois, that brings together families that want to adopt foster children with older people who act as surrogate community. The elders get a 25 percent reduction on their rent in exchange for spending time working in the community. It's created a wonderful communities for foster and adopted kids.
Do all these ideas rely on the idea that we'll all be able to age in place? That's what most people say they would like to do.
I think we need to reframe this idea as aging in community. We will all need not only networks of friendship but some of the bigger structural pieces, like transportation, walkable communities and some of the new technologies that can keep us safe and connected in our homes. I do think it's possible in another generation or two that assisted living facilities and nursing home complexes will disappear. People are going to be much happier rethinking our vision of long-term care.
Who is well suited to being part of an intentional community, and who is not?
It's not for you if you'd rather move to a traditional retirement community that has all levels of care available to you. Other than that, I think the alternatives should appeal to anyone who isn't a total curmudgeon or a hermit. These communities won't transform your personality or your life, but it's worth thinking proactively about how you want to spend the end of your life.