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On a chilly fall morning, Esther Courtney sat at her kitchen table, fiddling with her fingernails as she stared out the window overlooking the farmlands nestled in the backyard of her home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
It was Day 4 of her retirement, and she still wasn’t quite used to sleeping in past 5 a.m. and not dedicating eight hours of her day to doing other people’s laundry. So instead, she was talking with a reporter about the high cost of senior housing and what it’s like to have three roommates at her age – she cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered, “71.”
That’s when one of the women she lives with, Ruth Dunlap, 74, stepped into the room. “Do you want something to drink?” Dunlap asked. “We have coffee or tea?”
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“No,” Courtney said. “Not the way you make coffee.”
“Water? Bottled, sparkling?” Dunlap continued. “If you want something stronger, I could just give you tap water.”
“No. Just sit down,” Courtney said, rolling her eyes and letting her mouth ever so slightly curl up into a smirk. Once her roommate turned away, Courtney leaned in and added, “This is going to be a very long morning.”
A little over a year ago, these women were strangers. Today, they’re the “Golden Pioneers,” part of a big co-living experiment to tackle a growing crisis with aging in America – loneliness and access to affordable senior housing.
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As Dunlap sat down, a third roommate made her way into the room, relying on the cane she clutched in her left hand for balance before taking her seat at the dark oak table.
“Uh-oh, I have to sit next to her,” Dunlap joked as Rose Marie Sheaffer, 78, made her way into the room.
“Oh stop. You’d better behave,” Courtney said. “You don’t want to cross the lady with the cane.”
“Well, she has a cane, but I have my fist,” Dunlap snapped back.
They could keep this back-and-forth, quick-witted banter going for hours – a connection that one would think took years to build.
“There’s definitely part of me that thinks ‘I’m 74 and I still have three roommates,’” Dunlap said. “It’s out of economic necessity, but I also didn’t want to be alone anymore.”
And it was from those concerns that the Thistledown Co-living House emerged – a 4,000-square-foot home in New Holland, Pennsylvania, operated by Garden Spot Village, a nonprofit retirement community just down the road.
It’s something sort of revolutionary in our world – an affordable housing option that isn’t a government subsidy and was built to be a co-living space for seniors, paving the way for the future of senior housing in an economy where 401(k)s and pensions are almost a thing of the past as millennials struggle to save for retirement.
‘We reserve isolation for our worst criminals’
Steve Lindsey, CEO of Garden Spot Village, talks a lot about the value of an “authentic community.” He has spent his whole adult life trying to foster environments where people can grow and learn with and from one another in any stage of their lives.
“As a society, we’ve really begun to lose touch with that – of what it means to be connected with your neighbors,” Lindsey said, “to know the people who live around you, to be involved in people’s lives and to share healthy relationships and supportive relationships with people who live around you.”
That’s what people get when they come to Garden Spot, he said. Residents can choose to live in apartments, homes or assisted living spaces for an entrance fee ranging from $85,400 to $439,900 depending on the style of home the resident chooses, and monthly fees run from $1,301 to $2,200.
Of course, not everyone can afford those fees, and Lindsey fears people are being forced to live in isolation as a result – a thought that is unsettling to him.
“As a society, we reserve living in isolation for our worst criminals. We put them in solitary confinement,” Lindsey said. “Yet there are so many older adults that, just through the course of normal life, become sequestered away in isolation.”
Lindsey started to think about how he could create opportunities for people who couldn’t afford to live at Garden Spot Village – he wanted a model that takes income off the table.
It forced him to explore alternative options, leading him to look at the popular television show “The Golden Girls,” the late ’80s sitcom about four “mature” women living together in a home in Miami.
“We looked at that and thought, ‘That’s a great model, but what happens when the person who owns the house then has to leave – whether it be illness or death?’” Lindsey said. “It leaves everyone scrambling.”
So then he thought: What would it look like if Garden Spot Village owned the house? It would give people a chance to live there without the uncertainty of the future.
At that time, Lindsey said, the idea of co-living started to emerge with millennials. Young people were moving into big cities struggling to afford the price points of rent and struggling to find a safe environment to live in.
“And they were looking for that social network, so the co-living model was really starting to work with that age group,” Lindsey said.
It was an extremely popular living model where people, for a reasonable price, could rent a bedroom suite in a larger building, but share the kitchen and living room among the group.
“So we started to ask ourselves, ‘what if that model worked for all age groups?'”
Could five unrelated people actually live together and enjoy life together?
Could you really build a model that allows people to live on a sliding scale – 30% of income rent without having government subsidy?
“And the answer to those questions is absolutely yes,” Lindsey said.
Slideshow: Look inside the co-living house for seniors
How does it work? Who gets to live there?
The Thistledown Co-living House in New Holland offers private bedrooms and bathrooms for five individuals, with a shared kitchen, dining room, living room and laundry areas.
The residents pay 30% of their income for rent, so it’s a sliding-scale fee, which is the same used at government-sponsored or government-subsidized housing models. Utilities are included: Wi-Fi, cable, building maintenance, ground maintenance – basically everything is taken care of besides food.
And a social worker through Garden Spot Village, Jackie Berrios, serves as a moderator to assist if residents ever run into points of tension as they learn to live together.
When looking through resident applications for Thistledown, Lindsey said priority is placed on lower-income applicants and applicants who already live in the area and want to stay close to their communities.
The Thistledown Co-living House might just be the best-kept secret when it comes to the world of senior housing. It won the award for the best design from Senior Housing News earlier this year, and architecture students from Kansas State University were recently given a grant to come to the house and do a thorough review of it.
Yet, even with that success, Lindsey has been hesitant to promote the model.
That’s because, Lindsey said, when they built the home, they made a commitment to take the first year just to learn how it works – “to understand how the building functions and how life together functions for the group of people living there.”
But with that first year under their belts, Lindsey said he now is in talk with other states that want to replicate the model. Even other countries have noticed it, he said, mentioning a video call he had with people in Australia last month.
“We’ve had an opportunity to get in front of something and test it, and now we’re ready to share the playbook,” Lindsey said.
Real life isn’t a sitcom, but it’s sure close
For the most part, we all can relate to one of the Golden Girls. There’s Dorothy, the fierce, strong one. Rose, the ditzy, innocent one. Blanche, the fun-loving, oversexed one. And Sophia, the sarcastic one.
And while it’s certainly not Miami, and they aren’t indulging in cheesecake at the kitchen table at 2 a.m., the women of Thistledown sure are characters – delivering zingers and navigating the next stage of life together.
Between Dunlap, Courtney and Sheaffer, they make up the “Golden Pioneers,” a name they thought was a little more original and accommodating considering a male also lived in the house when they first moved in. He has since moved into an assisted living home after health problems, and they’re looking for their next roommate to fill the open room. But this time, it’s girls only.
“This is a new project, and we’re the first people to be testing it out I guess,” Dunlap said. “So that’s what we are. We’re the Golden Pioneers.”
There’s a quote Rose says in “The Golden Girls” that goes like this, “My mother used to say: The older you get, the better you get, unless you’re a banana.” It sounds silly, but it seems to fit when applied to these ladies. They don’t let age dictate how they live and they’re still as sassy and vibrant as ever.
Dunlap, 74, was a corporate trainer at Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels for 15 years and now is a receptionist at a restaurant. She’s witty, and you can immediately tell she’s a natural leader. She’s the one who reins the women in when it’s time for them to sit down for their game night – a new tradition they’ve started on Friday nights, complete with Scrabble and Bingo.
“I wasn’t sure about this living situation at first,” Dunlap said. “But I also wanted to have people to come home to.” She was divorced and on her own at the time, something that Dunlap described as very freeing, but also very tough. Thistledown was an arrangement that fit right into her budget.
To be part of any household – whether with a partner or spouse, other family members, or roommates – means giving up the freedoms that go with the living-alone life.
But it can also ward off loneliness. And the almost constant presence of others is something that Courtney, the 71-year-old adjusting to life in retirement, likes about having roommates. Growing up in Amish community, she was part of a family with nine children, and she never had the chance to feel alone. Nor did she want to.
She didn’t leave the Amish community until she met her husband in 1992.
“We were completely different,” Courtney said about her husband. “He was from New York and I was a little Amish girl, and one day I just decided to let my hair down.”
Courtney’s husband died in 2012, and she has been living alone since then.
“It got lonely,” Courtney said. “And I just didn’t want to do it anymore, so this seemed like a good idea. And it’s worked out – my life’s doable,” she laughed.
Sheaffer, 78, is “the lady with the cane.” She’s a lot of fun, has a great laugh, and likes to cook with potatoes, particularly. She used to live above a flower shop and moved to Lancaster when she ran out of money, she said.
She never lived in a house like this before, but said since moving to Thistledown, she would be afraid to live alone now – something about it just feels safe.
And for the most part, the women get along just fine.
“I was sort of concerned how we were going to juggle differences of opinions and feelings and ideas and all that,” Dunlap said. “But it hasn’t been an issue even though we do have differences sometimes and different opinions.”
As Sheaffer puts it, “we do pretty good and we have fun together,” – whether that be with game night or watching “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” just depends on the day.
“That’s those two,” Dunlap said pointing to her two roommates. “Count me out of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Jeopardy’. I have what I like to call ‘sundown syndrome.’ Once the sun’s down, I’m down.”
Even so, the roommate life is not always ideal. There are moments when the women are not feeling super-social, and just go to their room and shut the door. “But there’s something comforting about knowing that there’s someone possibly in the living room,” Dunlap said.
People often ask them what it’s like to live with several other women.
“I guess they think ya know, women can be kind of catty,” Courtney said, “But I don’t think we’ve put our claws out too much.”
“No, no, we aren’t too catty,” Dunlap jumped in, “But we like cats.”
And with that quick line, you would have thought Courtney’s eyes rolled all the way back into another dimension.
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Real-life Golden Girls? How millennial co-living plans could ease America’s aging crisis
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