Communal Living Anyone?

A few years back my girlfriends and I started speculating about where and how we’d like to live when we get “old” or retire. Since “old” always seems to be at least 10 years older than we are now, it’s an ongoing conversation.

Our fantasies often start with pooling resources and buying a sprawling villa in a hill town in Tuscany or Provence, growing old exploring new vistas, cooking adventurous meals sourced from local farmer’s markets and drinking copious amounts of fine wine.

Sometimes we think it makes more sense to stay closer to our kids and buy some land in Northern California or the east end of Long Island, building a light filled modern house with lots of bathrooms and a giant eat-in kitchen. Then, regrouping, we think maybe we should build small, self-contained pre-fab houses with a communal dining room. Lots of our male friends want to join in too.

Many baby boomers have similar fantasies, harkening back to the communes of the ‘60’s and 70’s. No one I know actually lived in one, but there’s something very comforting about the thought of sharing life, love and ongoing responsibilities with a group of like-minded friends. Plus, someone would always know where we were, how we were, and what we were up to. Of course there are downsides to our fantasies about collective living too. My friends and I are all very independent women, with complicated lives, highly evolved likes and dislikes, and we're not all that easy to live with. Which is probably why we haven’t gone out and bought the land…yet.

Other groups of friends across the country are starting to take action. The thought of banding together in “older" age has an appealing ring to it, especially since one third of baby boomers are currently single. Very few of us are interested in the kinds of retirement choices our parents made. Moving to Florida, the desert, or a retirement community on a golf course seems so “yester-year.”

Current approaches to communal housing range from small groups of friends looking for modern alternatives to living alone, to larger, more commercial, co-housing communities in cities and small towns, often near college campuses.  The appeal of collaborative living has struck a chord across all ages. There are currently more than a thousand co-housing communities across the country, with Collectives springing up from Brooklyn, where young artists are renovating factories and warehouses, to Vermont, where “intentional communities” like Cobb Hill focus on sustainable, farm-based living for all ages. 

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing stories and strategies about these new "communes” and how they’re evolving, focusing on what’s working best and what’s not.

Here are two very different examples:

In Portland, Oregon Jim Swenson, an independent filmmaker, and his wife, joined forces with an architect to create a “cohousing, co-op community” for a dozen couples who plan to grow older on their own terms, hosting weekly meals in a community kitchen with 20-something neighbors nearby.

Bonnie Moore, a 60-something divorcee with a five-bedroom house in Bowie, MD had more pressing financial needs so she found three other women and organized a home that’s "a little bit like family, a little bit like roommates, a little bit like a sorority house.”

Maybe it’s time for my friends and I to go out and find some land after all!

Join the Conversation

What are your fantasies and/or plans for how you want to live as you grow older?

Does the idea of communal living appeal to you too?