"Even frail elders who require considerable care have something to give. Even receiving care graciously is a form of giving. People feel good when they are able to give of themselves."
Two years ago, Carol Edwards left her California home to embark on a cross-country journey. "I needed just one more adventure," says Edwards, an 80 year-old retired Unitarian Universalist minister.
Her new adventure was joining ElderSpirit Community®, an elder-specific cohousing neighborhood in Abingdon, Virginia that emphasizes mutual support and late-life spirituality. "I had a deep sense that communities are where humans should live and live well," adds Edwards, "We are social animals."
Edwards, along with forty-three other community members, will move into her new ElderSpirit home this September. Ten years after the founding members began conceptualizing the community, ElderSpirit has evolved into a physical reality. In September, residents will celebrate the completion of all twenty-nine homes, nestled on four acres of land adjacent to the Virginia Creeper Trail and walking distance from downtown Abingdon.
Single-story, wheelchair accessible homes are clustered around a shared pedestrian green space - a hallmark of all cohousing communities. Common structures include a spiritual sanctuary for contemplative activities and the Common House, a hub of community life for communal meals, meetings, and community gatherings. Thirteen of ElderSpirit's twenty-nine homes are for purchase, ranging in price from $90,200 to $113,200. The remaining sixteen homes are subsidized rental units, for qualifying residents only, that go for $300 to $485 a month. Together, renters and homeowners participate in consensus decisionmaking and share in the work of the community.
The inspiration behind ElderSpirit was Drew Leder's article, "A Spiritual Community in Later Life: A Modest Proposal." Dene Peterson, a 75 year-old former Catholic nun, came across Leder's proposal and considered the possibilities. Forty years earlier, she and several other nuns left their order due to philosophical differences. Watching her fellow former nuns age, Peterson knew they wouldn't be able to afford the expense of choices like continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). She was also increasingly put off by the heavy emphasis on leisure lifestyles so prevalent among mainstream retirement circles. Leder's description of community, however, offered the hope of a more meaningful and collaborative elderhood.
Highly motivated, Peterson approached the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS), a group of her fellow former nuns doing community development and human service in Appalachia. Excited by Dene's vision, FOCIS formed a spin-off committee devoted solely to midwifing the new community. Many meetings, gatherings and shared milestones later, ElderSpirit members created a home together long before any houses appeared on the landscape.
"Spirituality is the human quest for personal meaning and mutually fulfilling relationships among people, the non-human environment, and, for some, God."
- Edward Canda, as re-printed in the ElderSpirit guide for Face to Face Reflection Groups
"We don't ask about people's spiritual orientation," explains Catherine Rumschlag, a 78 year-old founding member of both FOCIS and ElderSpirit. In addition to the community's Catholic roots, a rich spiritual diversity thrives at ElderSpirit.
"We believe in making space for the different ways people experience their spirituality," adds Dene Peterson. The "space" she refers to is captured in the community's well-articulated model for late-life spirituality, which features six dimensions: inner work, caring for oneself, mutual support, service to the larger community, reverance for creation, and personal creativity. Together, these dimensions create a framework for residents to explore and grow within their own unique spiritual identities.
"Mutuality is a form of relationship marked by equivalence between persons. It involves concomitant valuing of each other, a give and take according to each one's strength and weaknesses and a common regard marked by trust, affection, and respect for difference..."
- Elizabeth Johnson, as re-printed in the ElderSpirit guide for Face to Face Reflection Groups
At ElderSpirit, mutual support means more than just a commitment to caring for others. It also assumes a commitment to taking good care of oneself - honoring your own health is not only a gift to yourself, but also a gift to the community.
The healing capacity of giving as well as receiving is a key theme behind the community's philosophy. "We ask that people continue to give throughout their lives here," says Peterson, "it's different for everyone, of course. Even frail elders who require considerable care have something to give. Even receiving care graciously is a form of giving. People feel good when they are able to give of themselves."
The dynamic balance between giving and receiving plays out in the community's support of home care and dying at home. Four years ago, when a frail community member suffered several falls and was hospitalized with heart problems, community members responded by forming an ad hoc care team. When Lenore returned home, they split caregiving tasks between them, making sure someone was always with her. They also covered meals, errands, and provided steady companionship. When community members couldn't be there, a professional caregiver was present. Lenore responded well to the attention and began to come around. Later, in 2002, she passed away in the loving company of fellow community members. Her final wishes were respectfully carried out in the form of an Irish wake, and two community members accompanied her body back to her family home in New York state.
As the community faces aging together, questions arise about how best to manage multiple care needs simultaneously. "We would like people to join the community when they retire between the ages of fifty and seventy, " mentions Peterson, "this will provide an age span of at least twenty to thirty years, which would give us enough caregivers."
Catherine Rumschlag also envisions an on-going care committee that will identify the community's caregiving skill base, and in turn, match an individual's skill with another's need. Dene Peterson sees the community hiring their own professional part-time care manager, who will work with the community to determine the breadth and complexity of home care needs at any given time - a solution she thinks will help community members clarify how they can best support each other.
As one of the first elder cohousing communities in the United States, it remains to be seen how lifespan care will unfold at ElderSpirit over time. Questions aside, residents seem to find reassurance in knowing that people who truly know and understand them will care for them. "We have always been tribal beings," concludes Carol Edwards, " and here at ElderSpirit, you can feel connected to a tribe."
Laura Beck is the Program Director for The Eden Alternative's new initiative, Eden at Home. She also lives at Ecovillage at Ithaca, a cohousing community in Ithaca, New York.
Appleby, Monica and Lewis, Helen M. Mountain Sisters: From Convent to Community in Appalachia. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Canda, Edward. "Spirituality, Religious Diversity, and Social Work Practice." Social Casework: The Journal of Contemporary Social Work, April, 1988.
Johnson, Elizabeth. Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993.
Durrett, Charles. Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1-800-841-BOOK. Release date: September 2005.
Durrett, Charles and McCamant, Kathryn. Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, 2nd Edition. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1-800-841-BOOK, 1994.
Leder, Drew MD, PhD. "A Spiritual Community in Later Life: A Modest Proposal," Journal of Aging Studies 10 (Summer 1996): 109.
Leder, Drew MD, PhD. Spiritual Passages. New York: Tarcher/Putman- a member of PenguinPutman, 1997.
The Cohousing Association of the United States
Web site: www.cohousing.org
The Cohousing Company
Web site: www.cohousingco.com
The Elder Cohousing Network
Web site: www.abrahampaiss.com/ElderCohousing/
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