Gail Sheehy: For Some, It Takes A Village to Retire


c Gasper Tringale

A group of baby boomers is spearheading a nationwide movement to allow adults to remain in their own homes until the end of their lives.

“Hell, no, we won’t go!”

That’s the answer I hear most often from seasoned baby boomers when I ask if they’re getting ready to move to retirement communities.

For starters, they don’t plan to retire before 70. And most want no part of the elder islands where their parents retreated from the hustle of city life into a largely sedentary, age-segregated existence.

The Village Movement is a popular alternative. The drivers of this movement are feisty professional women in their 50s and 60s who are determined to change the experience of aging by empowering and enabling adults to remain in their own homes or apartments to the end of their lives. The movement, launched eight years ago in Boston with Beacon Hill Village, has spread to Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and more than 50 other cities. Hundreds more are in formation.

Boomers now over 50 want to belong to communal families, networked into a virtual village. It’s partly a resurgence of the commune spirit of the 1960s and a throwback to the villages of a pre-urbanized America, where people looked out for one another through good times and bad.

Science tells us today that anyone who hopes to enjoy a happy, healthy later life needs to feel part of a larger group. Family members are not enough. We need to build new and diverse friendships with people younger and older than ourselves — relationships that are built on affection, not obligation.

Typically, the great majority of joiners in the Village Movement are women. “It’s the women who see the value of socialization,” says Bob Davis, the only male board member of the 9-month-old Ashby Village in Berkeley, Calif. “The men are happy in their workshops or reading or doing some solitary activity.” Beneath this common divergence among couples is the fact that the women anticipate becoming caregivers. The men expect to be cared for by their wives.

But fate turned the tables on Davis. After his wife, Merle, a retired social worker, had a hip replacement, he became the full-time caregiver. Davis eagerly joined Ashby Village last October and in November was told he needed his arthritic ankle replaced. “I was off my feet for six weeks,” he says. “We live in the Berkeley Hills, and neither of us could drive. We couldn’t have survived if our church didn’t bring all our meals. Now we’ll have the village.”

Laura Peck, a 61-year-old organizational consultant who works full time, was recruited into Ashby Village during a grocery store conversation. Her husband, Alan Stein, balked. Too young, he protested. He is 65. But Laura’s mother, Thelma, a majestically erect octogenarian who also works full time, eagerly bought in for the annual fee of $750. “As long as I don’t look in the mirror, I can be any age I want to be,” she says impishly.

Both women were intrigued by a self-governing membership organization that offers a one-stop number to call, like a concierge, to ask for the professional services they may need in the future. For now, Peck is young enough to join the cadre of volunteers who can chauffer, walk the dog, cook a casserole to share with a convalescent or throw a potluck and poetry supper at her home.

People’s reluctance to admit they are getting older is the greatest barrier to membership. “Great idea, but I’m not ready” is a common response. Don Langley, a member of San Francisco Village, bristles at this denial. “You don’t wait until your house is on fire before you get fire insurance.”

The appeal is even greater to the unpartnered. One out of three boomers over 50 is not married. Paul Axelrod recently moved from Washington state to Berkeley to pursue a romance. He is a retiree who still skis and can handle driving and chatting while thumbing his iPhone for directions — but after attending his 45th high school reunion, he’s not kidding himself anymore.

“I didn’t want to wait until I need assistance,” he says. “I want to be able to be a part of the village while I can contribute.”

Editor’s Note: Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today

7 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Often it is in our late 50s when a friend suddenly passes away — a friend younger than we are — and, like it or not, we begin to look ahead.  We begin to watch what friends a decade or so older than we are going to when they suddenly tell us they are moving after a lifetime in our village.  Gail Sheehy has given us food for thought with this article. 

    I have heard for years that Quakers are taking all the right steps in setting up wonderful places for communal living.  I don’t believe you have to be a Quaker to to take advantage.  But with few exceptions — women in late 50s and 60s living alone who have joined together in a single large house for companionship and help when they might need it later — the idea is yet to take hold big time.  

    For myself, I realize it is a gamble — or will be — but I still can’t imagine with being with primarily people my own age most of the time.  Yes, most of us have old friends (friends our age) but most of my friends are 10 to 20 years younger.  . and I like it that way.  There is something about the vitality in that age difference that raises my own level of excitement.  I have the need NOT to settle down, settle in — though I admit doing it before you need it does give you peace of mind.  

    All of these options are individual choice and often determined by your own financial picture — a huge consideration on make that giant step.  But the choices are widening — but it may come down to what you can afford and if you can STAND communal living.  I happen to love to work, finding it stimulates my mind and keeps my body — well, sort of in shape — but i know the time will come — as it does to all of us — that a step will be taken.  And yet — my neighbor is 102 and still living independently with all her brain cells in tact.

    Click here: YouTube – Never underestimate an old broad

  2. avatar Bella Mia says:

    Caregiving was always one of the main point of churches. I belong to a church with anationwide membership.  It’s been a wonderful experience when moving, to pull up to a new house, and have a small army of strangers-soon-to-be-friends waiting there to help unload, and feed you at your road-weary-worst.
    I think we need this type of community support when living far from extended family.  We have home visits once a month from our group, either to drop off a treat, or flowers, or chat and listen to an inspirational message.  They’re here for us when life goes awry, too.  As much as the adults benefit, the children really benefit as well.

  3. avatar Lila says:

    Good for them.  I would much rather drop dead in my own kitchen than linger on for many more years in prison.  I mean, a nursing home (what was I thinking?… prison is free).

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Aging in place is one of the best things that can happen to seniors. I am not retired but I am already looking at patio homes for an idea of what I want or need later. The village concept makes sense for security and peace of mind. Long term planning allows us more options than being forced out of our homes because they can’t be adapted for handicapped living. The social aspect needs to be studied carefully to make sure you are the proper fit for the place you choose. Just like neighborhoods each will have a flavor. I want a place that is laid back instead of being full of rigid rules and regulations.

  5. avatar farleymc says:

    I’ve been care taking for my parents and uncle. My father is 85 and my uncle is 92.  My mother is in a dementia care unit. Living in their own home was not an option for the men unless I quit my job to take care of them.  They are now living in a retirement community that provides their meals. Its not assisted living, they have their own apartments.  Its not a horrible place, in fact its very nice.  They have social gatherings, happy hours. There are bus trips to plays, parks, casino’s. For people who can’t drive, there’s a van service to take you to doctor appointments and shopping excursions.  I think its a much better environment than living alone in your own house, without social interaction.  These village ideas sounds like a great idea, however, for people who live in the suburbs, staying in your home till the end may not be an option.  I don’t think retirement communities should be slammed, they aren’t all the same. As I told my father, not being able to stay in your own home is a gift of living to 85 and then some.

  6. avatar ThomasMorgan says:

    I think this is a fabulous idea. I work with older adults and one of their greatest desires is to remain independent.
    Melody Thomas-Morgan

  7. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    A dear friend hired a caretaker two years ago and two years later is in a psychiatric unit in a hospital after she finally went to see my doctor about neurological problems that may or may not be related to West Nile and the doctor noticed bruises on her body including one on her face and my friend stated that one of the “aides” the caretaker hired had hit her in the face with the phone.  The caretaker, who was there, attempted to counter the assertion and in the process became verbally busive with my friend. Hopefully she and the “aides” will be prosecuted. Had there been a “village” in place it wouldn’t have happened. We all assumed everything was fine. She never said anything. when we called.  But we never went by to see her. She was probably afraid to say anything. Until that day in the doctor’s office when a doctor asked about the bruise on her face along with the other bruises.  Her family were notified as were the police and her family took her from the doctor’s office to a nursing home to make sure she was safe and then the nursing home realized she had severe “emotional issues” and they had to move her to another nursing home that had psychiatric staff and incredibly one of the nurse’s aides there hit her!  She should be prosecuted as well. They moved her yesterday into a hospital. Where hopefully the staff has been trained properly and people who have the desire to hit a patient are screened out in the beginning.

    The best village is friends and famliy. My friend’s friends and family have learned not to assume everything is fine when you call. Particularly when there is a caretaker. Go by instead of calling.  I perhaps knew something else was wrong when I forced the issue of the neurological problems and insisted she see my doctor after her doctor kept saying it was West Nile and nothing could be done. It may have saved her life.  The doctor certainly did save her life. Some of us don’t have the friends and the family. So these “networks” of “kindred spirits” along with church groups are the alternative.  Perhaps a good alternative even with the friends and family. I am appalled. But also a little ashamed that I didn’t go to see her instead of just calling. But everything seemed fine.  Even though somehow I knew it wasn’t.