Se­niors live, thrive as real Golden Girls

Co- liv­ing cuts costs, helps ease lone­li­ness

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Sam Ru­land

On a chilly fall morn­ing, Es­ther Court­ney sat at her kitchen ta­ble, fiddling with her finger­nails as she stared out the win­dow over­look­ing the farm­lands nes­tled in the back­yard of her home in Lan­caster County, Penn­syl­va­nia.

It was Day 4 of her re­tire­ment, and she still wasn’t quite used to sleep­ing in past 5 a. m. and not ded­i­cat­ing eight hours of her day to do­ing other peo­ple’s laun­dry. So in­stead, she was talk­ing with a re­porter about the high cost of se­nior hous­ing and what it’s like to have three room­mates at her age – she cupped her hands around her mouth and whis­pered, “71.”

That’s when one of the women she lives with, Ruth Dun­lap, 74, stepped into the room. “Do you want some­thing to drink?” Dun­lap asked. “We have coffee or tea?”

“No,” Court­ney said. “Not the way you make coffee.”

“Wa­ter? Bot­tled, sparkling?” Dun­lap con­tin­ued. “If you want some­thing stronger, I could just give you tap wa­ter.”

“No. Just sit down,” Court­ney said, rolling her eyes and let­ting her mouth ever so slightly curl up into a smirk. Once her room­mate turned away, Court­ney leaned in and added, “This is go­ing to be a very long morn­ing.”

A lit­tle over a year ago, these women were strangers. Today, they’re the “Golden Pioneers,” part of a big co- liv­ing ex­per­i­ment to tackle a grow­ing cri­sis with ag­ing in Amer­ica – lone­li­ness and ac­cess to afford­able se­nior hous­ing.

As Dun­lap sat down, a third room­mate made her way into the room, re­ly­ing on the cane she clutched in her left hand for bal­ance be­fore tak­ing her seat at the dark oak ta­ble.

“Uh- oh, I have to sit next to her,” Dun­lap joked as Rose Marie Sheaffer, 78, made her way into the room.

“Oh stop. You’d bet­ter be­have,” Court­ney said. “You don’t want to cross the lady with the cane.”

“Well, she has a cane, but I have my fist,” Dun­lap snapped back.

They could keep this back- and­forth, quick- wit­ted ban­ter go­ing for hours – a con­nec­tion that one would think took years to build.

“There’s definitely part of me that thinks ‘ I’m 74 and I still have three room­mates,’” Dun­lap said. “It’s out of eco­nomic ne­ces­sity, but I also didn’t want to be alone any­more.”

And it was from those con­cerns that the This­tle­down Co- liv­ing House emerged – a 4,000- square- foot home in New Hol­land, Penn­syl­va­nia, op­er­ated by Gar­den Spot Vil­lage, a non­profit re­tire­ment com­mu­nity just

down the road.

Steve Lind­sey, CEO of Gar­den Spot Vil­lage, talks a lot about the value of an “au­then­tic com­mu­nity.” He has spent his adult life try­ing to foster en­vi­ron­ments where peo­ple can grow and learn with and from one an­other in any stage of their lives.

“As a so­ci­ety, we’ve re­ally be­gun to lose touch with that – of what it means to be con­nected with your neigh­bors,” Lind­sey said.

That’s what peo­ple get when they come to Gar­den Spot, he said. Res­i­dents can choose to live in apart­ments, homes or as­sisted liv­ing spa­ces for an en­trance fee rang­ing from $ 85,400 to $ 439,900 depend­ing on the style of home the res­i­dent chooses, and monthly fees run from $ 1,301 to $ 2,200.

Of course, not ev­ery­one can afford those fees, and Lind­sey fears peo­ple are be­ing forced to live in iso­la­tion as a re­sult.

Lind­sey started to think about how he could cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple who couldn’t afford to live at Gar­den Spot Vil­lage – he wanted a model that takes in­come off the ta­ble.

It forced him to ex­plore al­ter­na­tive op­tions, lead­ing him to look at the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion show “The Golden Girls,” the late ’ 80s sit­com about four “ma­ture” women liv­ing to­gether in a home in Mi­ami.

“We looked at that and thought, ‘ That’s a great model, but what hap­pens when the per­son who owns the house then has to leave – whether it be ill­ness or death?’” Lind­sey said. “It leaves ev­ery­one scram­bling.”

So then he thought: What would it look like if Gar­den Spot Vil­lage owned the house?

At that time, Lind­sey said, the idea of co- liv­ing started to emerge with mil­len­ni­als. Young peo­ple were mov­ing into big cities strug­gling to afford the price points of rent and strug­gling to find a safe en­vi­ron­ment to live in.

“So we started to ask our­selves, ‘ what if that model worked for all age groups?’ ”

The This­tle­down Co- liv­ing House in New Hol­land offers pri­vate bed­rooms and bath­rooms for five in­di­vid­u­als, with a shared kitchen, din­ing room, liv­ing room and laun­dry ar­eas. The res­i­dents pay 30% of their in­come for rent, so it’s a slid­ing- scale fee, which is the same used at gov­ern­ment- spon­sored or gov­ern­ment- sub­si­dized hous­ing mod­els. Util­i­ties are in­cluded: Wi- Fi, ca­ble, build­ing main­te­nance, ground main­te­nance – ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing is taken care of be­sides food.

When they built the home, Lind­sey said, they made a com­mit­ment to take the first year just to learn how it works. But with that first year un­der their belts, Lind­sey said, he now is in talks with other states that want to repli­cate the model.

“We’ve had an op­por­tu­nity to get in front of some­thing and test it, and now we’re ready to share the play­book,” Lind­sey said.

For the most part, we all can re­late to one of the Golden Girls. There’s Dorothy, the fierce, strong one. Rose, the ditzy, in­no­cent one. Blanche, the fun- lov­ing, over­sexed one. And Sophia, the sar­cas­tic one.

Among Dun­lap, Court­ney and Sheaffer, they make up the “Golden Pioneers,” a name they thought was a lit­tle more orig­i­nal and ac­com­mo­dat­ing con­sid­er­ing a male also lived in the house when they first moved in. He has since moved into an as­sisted liv­ing home af­ter health prob­lems, and they’re cur­rently look­ing for their next room­mate to fill the open room. This time, it’s girls only.

“This is a new pro­ject, and we’re the first peo­ple to be test­ing it out I guess,” Dun­lap said. “So that’s what we are. We’re the Golden Pioneers.”

From left, Rose Marie Sheaf­fer, 78, Ruth Dun­lap, 74, and Es­ther Court­ney, 71, bicker and ban­ter while talk­ing about liv­ing to­gether at This­tle­down Co- liv­ing House in Lan­caster County, Pa.

PHOTOS BY PAUL KUEHNEL/ USA TODAY NETWORK

The This­tle­down co- liv­ing house in New Hol­land, Pa. is run by Gar­den Spot Vil­lage.

PAUL KUEHNEL/ USA TODAY NETWORK

From left, Ruth Dun­lap, 74, Es­ther Court­ney, 71, and Rose Marie Sheaf­fer, 78, share a liv­ing room at This­tle­down.

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