The Golden Girls Got It Right

Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to my commune -- the one I plan on forming when I'm older and widowed and my kids are launched into lives of their own. Think I'm alone in the commune-planning department? You'd be mistaken.
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Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to my commune -- the one I plan on forming when I'm older and widowed and my kids are launched into lives of their own.

Think I'm alone in the commune-planning department? You'd be mistaken. I hear this conversation almost daily now -- whenever and wherever groups of 60-something women gather. We are planning on becoming roommates just like the "Golden Girls:" One will cook, another will drive. We'll take turns doing the dishes and, in general, we'll just laugh our way through old age -- all under the same roof, all of us in comfort shoes. At least that's the plan.

Sometimes, we fantasize about starting this living arrangement sooner rather than later -- you know, when we become "available," which is Commune-Planning Speak for widows, divorcees and never-marrieds tired of flying solo. In my girlfriend circles, we all want to travel, hike around the Alps, bike the Cotswolds and loll around on exotic beaches. We also agree with AARP's "three C's" of aging: Be concerned about companionship, caregiving and costs. For us, forming a commune hits the Trifecta.

How active is our planning? Not very, although just last week a friend sent me links to properties we could buy together in Canada and another spent an evening "researching" real estate online in some small town in Eastern Washington that somebody told her was perfect. One friend prefers big-city life, but thinks we'd have to share a bathroom to afford it. Another wants me to consider Hilton Head Island and just learn to ignore the Republicans.

For the record, my very-much-alive husband thinks that moving to a commune with my women friends is a great plan -- once he's dead, of course. He calls it a quality-of-life insurance policy. And my kids? The one lost in college brochures looked up long enough to promise to visit me wherever I am; the other keeps the door to his room barricaded so I couldn't actually ask his view. Yes, this is a plan for the future, obviously.

But that doesn't make the planning any less fun. Communal living, of course, isn't a new idea: The Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony were essentially a commune -- sharing a common philosophy and dividing up the chores for the common good. My commune won't be doling out any scarlet letters for misbehavior, I assure you.

And certainly, my generation is no stranger to communes: We formed about 2,000 of them during the height of the 1960s as we tested alternative lifestyles. Some were tinged with socialist principles, others embedded with a dash of communism, and still others run with a heavy dictatorial hand. Almost all failed. But now that we are older and wiser, the idea of communes may be, for some, the democratic answer to how to afford aging -- to handpick the friends you want to live with and jump off the aging cliff Thelma and Louise-style.

AARP's housing expert Rodney Harrell says that in 2000, there were 780,000 people age 50 or older living with roommates in "Golden Girls"-style households. In 2012, that number jumped to about 1 million. Not a huge increase and considering there are 104 million people in this country who are age 50 and older, just a drop in the bucket. That's OK. I have no issue with being ahead of the curve. And the number, said Harrell, is less interesting than the potential. We're going to need someone to take care of us, so why not our friends, he said.

There are also several bigger, organized co-housing developments formed by and for seniors.Glacier Circle in Davis Calif. was the country's first self-planned housing development for the elderly, and is one of the best-known. A dozen residents who all knew each other designed this community of eight townhouses and a common house with a living room and communal dining area. It also has a studio apartment for an on-site nurse. Then there's Elderspirit in Virginia, a church-based co-housing community and a third one in Boulder, Colorado, known as Silver Sage. They all seem like fine alternatives to an expensive assisted-living facility when I get much older. But I'm more focused on the years before that -- the years when I'm still well enough to live alone but would prefer not to for economic and/or social reasons.

Baby boomers have consistently said they want to stay in their homes and continue to live in the communities in which they raised their families, Harrell noted, but those homes and communities may be inhospitable to aging. As people age, they rely more on public transportation and also prefer homes without stairs. Plus they need activities and friends to avoid social isolation.

But like a lot of other things, there are a few obstacles and the government may be three steps behind the obvious solution. Harrell says that some municipalities have laws dating back 100 years -- intending to thwart houses of prostitution -- that actually could impede groups of unrelated friends setting up housekeeping together. And in some places, parking and building code regulations pose an impediment.

For the time being, I will continue to while away my evenings thinking about where my commune should be and who I want to live with in it. Nobody but me, by the way, calls them communes anymore. The preferred language of sociologists and planners is "intentional communities." You say tomato, I say tomato. Whatever. Let's just split the rent and have someone to hang out with in the evenings, OK?

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