Finding a Home
By Mary B. Young, D.B.A.
Deciding where to live as we age is one of the most important decisions Solos make—or sometimes postpone making. Should we stay where we are or move? Strike out on our own or choose a community that can provide on-site care and support, if and when we need it.
Valerie is in the thick of sorting out these issues. She’s 78, single, and a long-time Valley resident. Because her son lives far away, she identifies as Solo. She’d heard my talk for Northampton Neighbors on Aging Solo in the Valley, and reached out to ask whether I’d come across any good articles or books that might help.
Living Alone as You Age
Valerie is part of a growing population of older Americans who live alone. About 30 percent of adults over age 64 do so. In Western Massachusetts, the percentage is even higher.1
As people advance in years, they are increasingly likely to live in a one-person household. More than four in ten women (42 percent) age 75 or older live alone, as do 23 percent of men in that age group.2
These numbers are even more striking in a global context. Worldwide, just 16 percent of adults age 60-plus live alone. In many countries, fewer than 5 percent do; they are most likely to live with extended family.3
What Worked Before May Not Work in the Future
For years, Valerie had a home in the country. She lived up a dirt road, heated with wood, and shoveled her own snow. Realizing this lifestyle would be hard to sustain as she aged, she sold her house and rented an apartment in a larger community, where she planned to research her living options and transition into the next chapter of her life. That still hasn’t happened. The pandemic played a role, but so did her disappointment in the potential places she’s explored.
Consider the Options
Today, Solos have an expanding variety of housing options. In addition to living alone in your own apartment or house, there are familiar alternatives, such as senior housing, an over-60 “active-retirement” community, or living with extended family members, such as a sibling or cousin. There are also continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), which offer tiered living arrangements that enable residents to live independently but move “up” to higher levels of care, as needed.
Baby Boomers have always transformed the institutions they pass through: schools, higher education, marriage, and parenthood. Now they’re having an impact on aging. They’re discovering—or creating— alternatives to the typical living arrangements:
- Co-housing is an intentional “neighborhood” made up of both private living quarters and shared, public spaces, designed to support mutual assistance and close community. Today, there are 23 co-housing communities in Massachusetts.
- Communes are closely related to cohousing, but with a difference. Residents of the latter own their private living space and have outside jobs, although they’re also part of a community with common areas and social contact. Communards, on the other hand, typically pool their resources and expenses, living as a blended household rather than in separate ones. Communes may also center around a business, explicit beliefs. or values.
- Home-sharing Rather than downsizing to a smaller, some older people get housemates. They might be age-peers who provide mutual support and companionship and contribute to living expenses (think Grace and Frankie). Or they could be younger people who take on specific tasks in exchange for a shared home. These inter-generational relationships can be enriching on both sides.
- Informal clusters can meet similar needs: Solo friends might agree to move nearby (an apartment building, townhouse community, or even a village of “tiny houses”) so that they be there for each other as they age. Accidental neighbors in an apartment complex might organize to build a more connected community where people socialize and look out for one another. The recent movie Nomad portrayed another loose community, this one mostly older people who, by choice or out of economic desperation, live in truck-top campers and RVs. Gathering in encampments, like members of a tribe, they become a family.
Aging Boomers are gathering to live in informal clusters, drawn together by every imaginable common interest. There are communities for Parrot heads, golfers, Indian Americans, LGBTQ, retirees from the same corporate employer, practitioners of a specific religion or spiritual path, social and environmental causes, and tiny houses.
And don’t forget NORCs (a fun word to say). While not widely known, it’s the acronym for “naturally occurring retirement communities.” That’s what happens when people discover that they’re already living in an older-adult community that has formed all on its own, serendipitously. That’s what happened in one Valley hill town, where people realized that they, and many of their neighbors, were all of a certain age. Perhaps they had always been a large cohort of the population; it just mattered more now that they were older. They needed things, and needed each other, in ways they hadn’t before. Quite by accident, the town had become a NORC.
- Social networks Not everyone can live in such a community or would want to. But there are other ways to build a social safety net that bolsters Solos’ quality of life. The Valley is fortunate to have many thriving “neighbors” groups. These are grassroot, volunteer networks designed to engage and support a community’s elder residents. In addition, towns are leveraging technology to create caring communities that support elders who are aging alone, checking in on their well-being and connecting them to local volunteers who can offer a ride or do a minor home repair.
Think Carefully about Your Wants and Needs
Valerie has given a great deal of thought to her wants and needs for a home to grow older in. She can’t afford a pricey CRCC or adult community and doesn’t want to live exclusively with older people. She likes having a role, being responsible for something. She hopes to live with other people committed to a larger purpose, each person contributing to the greater good and also coming together for meals.
A commune or co-housing seemed like the right fit, so she began researching and visiting some. So far, nothing’s clicked. Her health remains good, but her sense of urgency has grown stronger.
Her experiences, and those of other Solos, offer lessons:
- Have a plan before you move. Valerie thought her downtown apartment was just a short-term layover. Unfortunately, she’s still looking. What she knows now and wishes she’d known earlier: Figure out your next move well in advance. “Have a defined plan that you would look forward to doing,” she says, “something that’s going to open the door to the next chapter in your life.”
- Decide what’s most important to you. What Valerie’s looking for, she says, is “a place where I have a sense of being at home.” For years she’s wanted to live in a multi-generational commune. That self-knowledge helped focus her search, but her criteria have become even clearer over the past several years. Visiting places in person and, when possible, spending the night there proved eye-opening. A co-housing community that claimed to be multi-generational turned out to be all older people; the only younger ones were paid staff. At a commune, she learned that only a small percentage of the residents helped out with community life; many others had come for the affordable housing but didn’t participate in the group.
It’s also important to test the Solo-friendliness of a potential new home. Many Solos are familiar with the awkwardness of being the only un-partnered person in a group that is overly couples oriented. While the preponderance of pairs will wane as people grow older and partners die, no Solo should have to wait for that to happen before they can feel comfortable.
- Don’t wait too long. Like many of us, Valerie knows she must figure out her living situation while she’s still physically able. A bad fall or a life-threatening disease would limit her options. That’s what happened to another older Solo. For four years, she’d been part of a group developing a new co-housing project that was finally coming to fruition. In the meantime, she was diagnosed with dementia. Though she was still in the early stage, co-housing group no longer wanted her as a member.
There’s another, even bigger reason why Solos should start thinking earlier about where they want to age, rather than waiting to do so. Rather than choosing a ready-made solution, you may have to create your own. Whether that entails finding compatible housemates, building a network of supportive neighbors, researching potential communities, or slowly moving up the waiting list for the place you want to move to—it all takes time. It may also require creativity, collaboration, and perseverance.
That’s where Valerie thinks she made a mistake. “Finding a place takes a lot of energy,” she says, “and we have less of it as we grow older.”
In the future, says aging solo expert Sara Zeff Geber, the burgeoning senior-housing market will wake up and see that Solos are an untapped market. They’ll design or renovate housing to meet the needs of a more diverse range of households, such as two or more friends who choose to live together.4
In the meantime, don’t hold your breath.
1 Davis Financial Group and MassMutual Trust Company analysis of data from the 2013-2017 American Community Survey, Five-Year Estimates.
2 2017 Profile of Older Americans, Administration for Community Living and the Administration for Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
3 “Older People Are More Likely to Live Alone in the U.S. Than Elsewhere in the World,” Pew Research Center (2020).
4 Sara Zeff Geber, “Why Current Senior Housing Options Don’t Appeal to Solo Agers,” forbes.com (January 18, 2019).
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