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Communal housing is coming of age

Seniors are beginning to see the advantages of shared living complexes.

December 23, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

GRASS VALLEY, CALIF. — Suzanne Marriott's brave drive into the future started with a traffic jam, which gave her a lot of time to think about what she was getting herself into -- and out of.

Newly widowed and recently retired, the lanky 64-year-old was making her way to the Sierra foothills to meet a group of complete strangers that she might just spend the rest of her life with.

Left behind in the rearview mirror was a sprawling ranch house in Castro Valley, near Oakland, that managed to be full and empty all at once, jammed with the stuff of a long, happy marriage but drained of life since the death of her husband, Michael, from multiple sclerosis six months before.

For decades, the couple, avid backpackers and mountain bikers, had wandered the world together. Now she was striking out on her own, placing big bets on the rest of her life and on a nascent movement called senior cohousing.

Marriott was betting that she could join a group of like-minded people -- all relatively healthy and not that old -- and together they could build a community that would be something between commune and condo complex.

She was wagering that they could all live there to the end without burdening family members or enduring life in an institution picked by somebody else. And she hoped they would have fun in the process.

So as Marriott navigated Interstate 80 toward her fellow pioneers in late-life living, she was more curious than terrified.

"I wanted to see if there was a way to make more meaning in my life now that Michael was gone," she said. "We'd been together 30 years. I thought I was being led to something that would be meaningful and be a way to move forward."

In the 18 months since she hit the highway, Marriott and her future neighbors have done something only a few groups of forward-thinking seniors in America have accomplished.

Along with the architects who imported the idea of cohousing from Denmark 20 years ago, they have designed their 30-unit complex from the ground up, complete with an elaborate common house where they plan to dine together several nights each week.

They've attended scores of meetings, made thousands of decisions -- all by consensus -- buried one beloved member and welcomed others. They have pledged to "support each other through rough times, whether physical, emotional and/or spiritual." They have learned how to listen and how to disagree.

And if all goes according to the meticulous planning of the 16 women and four men who have so far signed on, Wolf Creek Lodge will break ground in spring here in the heart of Gold Country. It will be California's second elder cohousing community and only the fourth such project nationwide; a dozen or so others are in the works.

"Many people don't have an extended family, or it's an extended dysfunctional family," Marriott said. "We'll have this close community for, well, the rest of our lives."

'A team sport'

The idea of cohousing was born in Denmark in the 1960s and imported to the United States nearly three decades later by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, husband and wife architects from California who have written extensively on the topic.

There are about 100 multi-generational cohousing communities in the United States -- more in Northern California than anywhere else -- and they usually consist of town houses or separate residences built around a common house and shared open space, Durrett said.

The basic premise of cohousing -- that life is better together than apart -- is an even neater fit for people as they age, because "aging is a team sport," said Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician and author of "What Are Old People For?" But cohousing communities specifically geared for seniors are just beginning to take off.

"For a long time, the team was your blood kin. Now the team, more and more, is going to be the people with whom we choose to live," Thomas said. "Elder cohousing is a response to the fading away of our traditional understanding of family and care-giving."

It is also a search for the elusive ideal of community: that remembered or dreamed-of network of people who won't cramp your style but will make sure you're OK as you grow up or grow old.

In fact, many of Wolf Creek Lodge's members, who live throughout Northern California and Washington, were drawn to cohousing after watching friends or relatives founder alone at the end of their lives and deciding they wanted better for themselves.

Butch and Virginia Thresh, both 69, live on 15 acres in rural Nevada County. They chop wood for heat, revel in the peace and quiet of their isolated hilltop homestead and have no intention of hanging up their hiking boots, bicycles and petanque equipment.

But after reaching 65, they began to wonder what would happen if one of them became disabled. Then one day, Butch was out fixing up a house they own in Grass Valley. Their elderly tenant had called four months earlier and said his wife had died and he needed to move.

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