Seniors live, thrive as real Golden Girls
Co- living cuts costs, helps ease loneliness
On a chilly fall morning, Esther Courtney sat at her kitchen table, fiddling with her fingernails 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 coffee or tea?”
“No,” Courtney said. “Not the way you make coffee.”
“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 affordable 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 Sheaffer, 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 fist,” 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 definitely 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 nonprofit 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 afford 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 afford 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 afford the price points of rent and struggling to find 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 offers private bedrooms and bathrooms for five 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 first year just to learn how it works. But with that first 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 fierce, strong one. Rose, the ditzy, innocent one. Blanche, the fun- loving, oversexed one. And Sophia, the sarcastic one.
Among Dunlap, Courtney and Sheaffer, 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 first moved in. He has since moved into an assisted living home after health problems, and they’re currently looking for their next roommate to fill the open room. This time, it’s girls only.
“This is a new project, and we’re the first 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.
The Thistledown co- living house in New Holland, Pa. is run by Garden Spot Village.
From left, Ruth Dunlap, 74, Esther Courtney, 71, and Rose Marie Sheaffer, 78, share a living room at Thistledown.