Back To Sophisticated Communes – Will Baby Boomers Come Full Circle? Scott’s Story

August 18, 2009

by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

After lifetimes of aggressive independence, Boomers may seek a sense of community as we age. The co-housing movement looks back to the free-spirited hippie communes of our youth but forward to a Utopia of health, learning, and productive work – without skimping on material comfort.

Remember those generally rural, usually idealistic, and mostly unsustainable experimental communes a fair number of Boomers flocked to – at least temporarly – in the ’60s and ’70s?

I certainly do. I was invited to visit a northern California commune for a week or so, in order to write a story for my newspaper column about women living out-of-the-ordinary lives. The woman in this case was named Laraine. Her commune consisted of five or six families occupying a large farm, which one family inherited from a childless uncle.

Laraine, who had a burly husband with a bushy beard and two adorable little children who never seemed to wear shoes, was trained as a biochemist. But she’d traded in labs and test tubes for a small herd of goats, a magnificent vegetable garden, and a healthy life of self-sufficiency.

This was pre-Internet, of course, but the collective families had decided to ban television and newspapers and weren’t too keen on music, either. They grew – or slaughtered – all their own food, made all their own clothing, and home-schooled their kids, way before anybody else thought of doing it.

They were idealistic, earnest, and more than a tad priggish. I found them quite interesting and in some ways, quite admirable. But I finished my assignment with a sigh of relief and without the slightest desire to live the way they did.

Fast forward to today and another northern Californian, Scott Adams.

Scott, a Marin County architect and housing expert, believes the idea of communal living – albeit sophisticated and even luxurious communal living – could start to appeal to Baby Boomers again. He’s among a group of thinkers – architects, planners, economists, and sociologists – lately enamored of a concept called co-housing, which first arose in Europe and is now spreading throughout the world, including the US.

Think of co-housing as a ’70s commune with a coat of white-collar polish. Or a monastery without the monks and religion. Or maybe a condominium complex with the real estate aspect seriously altered.

While co-housing communities often look like your average neighborhood condos – they typically comprise 20-50 residences and townhouse architecture is popular – they differ considerably from other forms of real estate in how they evolve, grow, and what they mean to those who own them.

Intentional Utopias

“People don’t opt into a co-housing arrangement after the fact,” explains Scott. “A group of people come together with the intention of forming a community. They purchase the land, hire the architects and builders, decide on the features and amenities they want, and are involved in every aspect of the community’s development and subsequent growth.”

There’s considerable flexibility in this basic model, making each co-housing arrangement unique. Some communities are multi-generational; some are not. Some welcome children; some do not. Some share professional interests, as in intentional communities of artists, teachers, or even computer programmers.

Scott’s recently-formed company, Communities International, is focused specifically on co-housing arrangements for Boomers, which he thinks will become increasingly popular from now on.

“Yes, Boomers are angry, partly because of financial reverses,” he says. “But they are also disillusioned, because so many sources of emotional support may have failed them, too. Many have been ‘outsourced’ or ‘downsized’ from corporate communities. Others are divorced or widowed. People have chosen to be childless, or children and other relatives may live far away. The world is simply not as socially supportive as it once was, and a feeling of isolation seems to be widespread among the Boomer generation.”

Some studies show that aging within a close-knit community can help prolong one’s life, as well as rendering it happier. “My own family experience supports this thesis,” says Scott, who fondly remembers the small town of Allegan, Michigan, where his aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived and died.

“My grandfather Adams lived with his sister into his late 80s, surrounded by five daughters and their children. My grandmother Herman lived in the same house since she was 18, and after my grandfather died, she had three sisters as near neighbors.”

A Vineyard in Your Future? – Possibly in Mexico?

But not everyone is so lucky these days. Both Scott’s mother and former mother-in-law died in nursing homes. And the incident which inspired the formation of Communities International ended on a down note.

Seven years ago, a group of several professional couples and singles, Scott among them, attempted to build a community in rural Sonoma County, California, which would be based on the plan of a Japanese country village with a central garden. All of them were friends of a wonderful man named Jerry, an astronomy professor who had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “The idea was that we would all take care of Jerry as his illness progressed and take care of each other as we aged as well,” relates Scott.

But Sonoma County zoning laws at that time worked against them. “A wealthy person could get permission to build one 12,000 square foot home. But we couldn’t get permission to buy land jointly and build seven small homes totaling 10,000 square feet.” The potential community disbanded, and Jerry, now unable to talk, lives isolated in a small nursing home, with only occasional visitors.

This incident inspired Scott to turn his full attention to promoting co-housing and eventually building new communities. This fall, he is teaching a workshop on the co-housing concept at a local college. Communities International should launch its first Boomer-planned and Boomer-built project within the next 18 months.

One possibility is a community sited in a vineyard. “That fulfills a dream of many California Boomers,” he says. “Monastic communities have been based at vineyards for centuries. And members of the community could theoretically offset some of their living costs by running the winemaking operation as a business.”

Another possibility that appeals to many Boomers is a co-housing project for small business owners. There are already many neighborhoods where small business owners live in townhomes above the shops, restaurants, or professional businesses they operate. There’s no reason such an entrepreneurial neighborhood concept should not work well within a co-housing framework, with Boomer small business owners banding together to buy and plan the community in which they’ll both live and work.

As the housing market recovers, co-housing projects which need to be financed may be as appealing to potential lenders as they are to potential owners, Scott believes. “A major concern of every lender is ‘Will units in a particular project sell, and will the project be fully occupied?’ That’s never a problem with co-housing, because you know you have 100 percent occupancy before the ground is broken.”

In addition to US locations, Scott’s company is scouting out sites in Latin America, including Mexico. “Land use regulations tend to be very favorable,” he says. “Cost-of-living is often far lower, and there are active groups of ex-patriates in many locales.”

Scott believes that, paradoxically, the financial and political shocks of the past few years may prove to be beneficial to Boomers in the long run, because many have begun to rethink their futures in a positive way.

“Boomers now know it’s important to economize, to feel secure, and to be proactive about their futures, instead of just reacting to what life throws at them,” he comments. “Co-housing can be cheaper than many other alternatives, yet with more amenities and greater safety and security. It can provide a base for continued employment and productive endeavors. And communities can expand and change as residents age, according to their needs and desires.

“It’s an attractive concept in virtually every way.”

What Do You Think?

Could a “sophisticated commune” be part of your future?

What type of community might appeal to you most?

Would a project based on common professional or entrepreneurial goals interest you?

How about a co-housing project in Latin America or another ex-patriate haven?

Is isolation as you age a concern of yours? If so, what steps are you taking to combat it?

For the next story in the series, “Re-Engineered to Smithereens,” please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-B

For the Introduction to the Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation series: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3

For our hard-hitting article on Anti-Boomer Propaganda and How To Combat It, please visit: http://wp.me/pxD3J-8

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23 Responses to “Back To Sophisticated Communes – Will Baby Boomers Come Full Circle? Scott’s Story”

  1. Anne Bolender Edwards Says:

    Hi Ellen, I really enjoyed reading this article on co-housing. I was first introduced to co-housing about 20 years ago – while I was doing some research for an academic essay. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to try this alternative housing design myself, but have become increasingly more intrigued by the possibilities as I age.

    I particularly like the idea of a co-housing community of solo-entrepreneurs. What a great way to create a creative community!!

    For me personally, my interest in extended travel has always been tempered with the concern about leaving house and home behind. A recent incident in my neighborhood where a home was trashed by partying teenagers while the owners were on an extended holiday, brought this home to me recently. Co-housing seems to be an interesting solution to this concern.

    Cheers
    Anne Bolender Edwards,
    President, Ageless Nomads

  2. Victor Escalante Says:

    Years ago, I visited a client of mine in Villa Hermosa a city near Mexico City. He is a minister (judge next to being on supreme court) his house was a project of about 8 homes all united by the same backyard. They all shared a pool, cabana, and kids playground. I thought to myself what a novel way to live. Separate but part of a community. I do see this growing in certain parts of the country.

  3. Amanda Says:

    Excellent article and some interesting ideas!

    I’ll be interested to see how companies like Communities International tackle problems faced by this unique generation, one facing a myriad of retirement issues.

    Sounds very promising!

  4. Sandy Smith Says:

    Fascinating piece. Looks like some of us are headed halfway to the kibbutz.

    I say halfway because, based on what I read here, there’s no collective division of labor on the communally-owned property in these developments, but I may have just overlooked something.

  5. scott adams Says:

    Hi Anne,

    Wen I first started putting together a vision for Communities International, I embraced the idea of Boomers as nomadic tribes living and sharing their vast experience and knowledge in the four corners of the world, while living comfortably and having the time of their lives.

    The counterpoint was most of us want to stay in touch with our friends and children back home. The idea of a network between communities evolved, where you can live near home in a community at times and in another community in another country when you choose to be nomadic.

  6. kevin Says:

    Great article.

    Outlines a really positive-thinking plan that addresses a huge issue in retirement and late-life health.

    Seems apropos to the current health care reform. I think now is a good time to really get this conversation going. Perhaps there could be tax breaks for these kinds of co-housing communities or an easing of zoning regulations?

  7. Matthew Says:

    ..a really interesting article. We should all be thinking about our futures and I love the way Scott views the options for communities.

  8. Kay Mullins Says:

    Thank you for the article, Ellen. Scott’s vision and ideas are exciting.

    For the last ten years, I’ve been thinking how great it would be to have more of my friends living near me, instead of scattered around the globe. “Separate yet together” sounds perfect for my long-term future, and I can picture rallying some friends to make this happen.

    A huge consideration for some of us are family responsibilities, such as care-giving for parents or other family members. With the flexibility to create a community whenever and wherever a collective groups agrees, that can be addressed, too. Keep up the great work, Scott, and keep us posted!

  9. Tony Says:

    This really is a great article, and it’s also thought provoking.

    For generations my family on both sides lived in the same small villages and towns in England, where everyone knew everyone else, where families helped each other out, and in recent years with people moving around the country, indeed around the world, times have changed.

    These days, how many of your neighbors do you know? How many friends do you have that you could walk to instead of having to drive long distances to?

    Life has changed, families and friends are more isolated from each other than they used to be, and I think many of us are saddened to see the lack of community spirit that there used to be years ago.

    I think that creating communities where people help each other, where you can farm the land, live and work together, and redevelop close bonds with people like there were years ago, is a great idea, especially when we Baby Boomers are getting older, and need to have others around us for companionship.

  10. Tim Says:

    This article gives some very compelling reasons about why communities make so much sense for Baby Boomers.

    I particularly agree with Scott’s point about our current economic climate, and how these shared living communities can act as a real solution.

  11. Kris Schroeder Says:

    Ellen,

    Interesting article.

    I currently live in a conservation community in Illinois which I jokingly call a commune-ity.

    The focus here is on conserving the land and taking care of our environment. There is an organic farm, many people compost, and there is a charter school setup with a different way of learning. All of the “hippie” ways of doing things were what attracted us to living here.

    It is also a true community, where it is common, rather than uncommon, to know many of our neighbors. There are some families with brothers, sisters, parents, etc., all living in this community, even if not in the same house.

    To me, it is the way to go. I’m happy to have found our community and hope there are more like this.

  12. Lee Says:

    We have an excellent example of co-housing in our neighborhood.

    Takoma Village Co-Housing, in the Takoma area of Washington, DC, is at the higher end of the local price scale but well-managed (by committee, I think, with a professional management company to do the work) and an asset to the community.

    The group had many hurdles to overcome to get started, but I am sure it helped that the community in general was receptive (for the most part) to the idea.

  13. Karen Sadler Says:

    Choices. The world wasn’t ready to meet the new needs of 78 million “baby” Baby Boomers in the ’50s and ’60s.

    Today, we need many more choices for aging Baby Boomers, and co-housing is a great addition to the set of choices.

    Thanks, Ellen, for highlighting this. One size does not fit all.

    Nursing homes were created for a different generation and a world that no longer exists. Although there are still nursing homes, during the past 20 years, people and businesses have changed this industry to include communities of continuing care, retirement communities, assisted-living communities, dementia-care communities and skilled nursing communities – in most instances a higher quality of care than what people think of when the term “nursing home” is used.

    These communities are continuing to evolve, and the addition of communal neighborhoods is growing.

    What we know today that we didn’t know yesterday is that we live longer, and we must stay engaged not only physically but mentally and spiritually.

    One of the best ways to have that balance is to locate the right community for each stage of our lives. As the research continues to come, it appears that the quality of our longevity is directly affected by our social interactions.

    Let’s hope that Scott’s company and others like it are able to get cities to allow zoning that creates the communities that will be needed for us to live the highest quality of life, no matter what our age.

  14. Ann Blanchard Says:

    As I age (I’m almost 59) and take care of my two elderly parents, I wonder what will become of me as I get old, since I’m single and childless.

    I’ve been pondering the idea of some kind of community that I could help out and would help me out when I needed it.

    Thanks for sharing this interesting article with a variety of approaches to building communities.

  15. Jean-Paul Close Says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Thank for inviting me into your fascinating blog world. Indeed, the strength of the community will flourish again in the future, as opposed to the years of individualization of populations.

    We needed a financial crisis to see that human values are missing in society, causing many to develop burn-outs, stress and lack of self-esteem.

    When money rules, values disappear. When values rule, money becomes a means for further investment in prosperity.

    In my work as leader of the business community “City of Tomorrow” here in Holland, we bring entrepreneurs together in a values-oriented paradigm.

    The most difficult challenge I face every day is to get people to trust each other sufficiently to start working together.

    “Trust” needs a good moral foundation that starts with self-awareness, self-confidence, and authenticity. The next pillar for trust-building is safety, where strong community members can help others who need it. If not, the community falls apart.

    Then comes “equality” (not to forget the equality between men and women).

    Reconstructing such a morality is a universal challenge that involves every individual, political, and social organization, as well as business.

    If you think of building a housing community, make sure you protect its ethical base, and it will flourish.

  16. Sarah MacGowan Says:

    This is precisely what my friends and family plan to do in the next 10 years.

  17. Scott Adams Says:

    I just finish reading a report on older adults living in Marin County, California – a very rich community – and about 50% of the over 65 age group live alone.

    They tend to go into institutional living arrangements because they are lonely, there is no support, and they do not want to be a burden to their children, a very expensive solution.

    I also recently read a book that examines the life of people who live beyond 100.

    There is overwhelming evidence that quality of life, health, and longevity are tied with community living.

    For Baby Boomers, the current social structure will simply not work. This is a much bigger issue than I ever imagined when I first started believing in community living.

  18. pat j. Says:

    I am a senior TV producer with a nationally syndicated travel program. I think the idea of communal or community senior living has merit and would love to join a study group on the issue. Please let me know if there is activity in Chicago.

    • ellenbrandtphd Says:

      Pat,

      I’ll contact you next week.

      Or contact me.

      Ellen

      (There is not only co-housing activity in Chicago. There’s co-housing activity more or less everywhere!)

  19. George Clack Says:

    Very well-done piece.

    I had a father-in-law who recently got most of the communal benefits of co-housing out of his 11 years in a nursing home.

    Seems the end of the line for most, but for him it was a new beginning, a new group to be part of, a new audience to sell himself to, a new sense of belonging.

    I know we don’t think well of nursing homes, but there is a thriving communal life there.

  20. Landon Says:

    We are looking to do the very same, anywhere.

  21. Colleen Says:

    I’ve always thought a multi-generational group as the most viable, with processes and physical spaces that adapt for the changing needs of members over time.

    How about a co-housing social network generating member options for house swaps, couch-surfing, time-sharing, educational vacations and cruise packages, etc. to benefit the nomadic lifestyle?

  22. julie gantt Says:

    This is wonderful. Just what I have been thinking of doing. When we were young (1969) we started a pizza parlor in Seattle. It supported about 20 of us. I am ready to do something similar again. I am wiser now. Thank-you, Julie
    I am still in Washington State but interested in re-locating to Central Coast California.


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