For the past few years, my husband John and I have traveled north from our home in West Virginia to central New York for Christmas. My father lives there, around the corner from my sister and her family. Or at least he used to live there; first with his wife, and then alone. Every year, John and I would drive over the rivers and through the woods of rural Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve with a car full of presents, and arrive at Dad’s house near Elmira, New York just in time for dinner. We’d then tromp (or drive as the case may be) down the road to my sister’s house, where she hosted Christmas Eve dinner for her in-laws (parents, siblings, nieces, nephews with a few aunts and uncles thrown in) and us. We’d spend Christmas Day at my Dad’s house, alone with him until my sister, nieces and brother-in-law returned from their noontime Christmas meal and gift-giving with their extended clan.
This year, my father lives in a nursing home and his house is for sale. He can no longer stand, and requires two trained aides and a quite impressive piece of machinery to lift him from his bed or wheelchair to the recliner where he spends most of his days, reading biographies on his Kindle and listening to classical music.
John and I have seen our parents age badly, facing significant decline in their 70’s (if they made it that far) and then immobility in their 80s. Yet each of them sought to stay in their home for as long as they could – long after their children felt it was safe for them to do so. They resolved to age in place. Which, in their 20th century vision of the American dream, meant aging in a single-family home in suburbia. We’ve watched, however, as that dream transformed into dangerous isolation (despite well-meaning offspring stopping by every day to “check”) when physical and mental abilities declined .
So I was particularly primed when The Observer editor David Lillard suggested I write my December feature about co-housing. A group of local seniors was embarking on a new adventure for this potentially treacherous phase of their lives. They were designing a community of friends and neighbors that cared for one another and the Earth at the same time. Such cohousing communities aren’t new, but they are rare in the United States. Often flagged as “intentional” living, these communities typically cluster their homes close together to retain open space, and share walls (duplexes and triplexes are common) to reduce their footprint on the Earth, physically and ecologically. A larger common house allows members to gather for community meals and events, and many cohousing communities cultivate shared gardens. You can read more about the Pioneers of Shepherd Village, and their commitment to each other, in my December feature for The Observer.
As I left my first interview with members of the group to prepare my story, I felt energized and inspired. “Maybe there is a better way to age,” I thought. “Maybe we really do need to strengthen our connections with others, because in the end, that’s all we’ve really got.” Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the idea. “Doesn’t suit my independent nature,” I’d think. But now…
Well, now actually, the demands of middle-age life consume all of my attention – work, family, house, and if I’m lucky, a little outdoor fun thrown in now and then. I realize I don’t have sufficient emotional energy remaining at the end of the day to give to a close community right now. Instead, this Christmas, with my father’s house empty and my sister’s house full, John and I are escaping to a cabin in the woods. We’re hoping for snow, but will be grateful for the silent forest around us regardless. After a tumultuous year, holiday solitude beckons.
Even so, I can’t help thinking about the future: thinking that, someday, as we age, John and I might choose differently, and indeed head co-home for the holidays.