Friday, December 26, 2014


A couple weeks ago I was discussing family traditions with Ma'ikwe one evening. While I was thinking mostly about spiked egg nog and plum pudding, she recalled family rituals at Fourth of July waterskiing parties, where the featured libation was a thirst quenching concoction of rum, limeade, and beer called a Boomerang. From what I could tell it went down easy, yet had a nasty habit of coming back on you.

Sitting in bed recuperating from back strain these long winter nights, I started reflecting on how "boomerang" could be a serviceable theme for reflecting on trends in community living…

In the last 25 years something different has been happening in the demographics of intentional community. For the first time in history there are significant numbers of people over 50 years old trying community living for the first time. What has historically been predominantly the domain and twentysomethings and thirtysomethings—sticking your toes in community waters—has widened considerably. Now everyone’s doing it.

It used be that the way to get older folks in community was to recruit younger folks and age them for a few decades. Today though, some people are raising families in traditional settings, retiring from regular jobs, and then trying community.

What’s going on? I think there are a number of things.

Boomerang Hippies

Interest in intentional communities has ebbed and flowed over the entire history of the US. While we are currently riding a long wave that started around 1990 (and featured a secondary uptick in 2005-07), the prior boom to the current one was 1965-75: the Hippies Era. In fact, many of the inspirational and best-known US communities today started in that decade—notably Alpha Farm, Ananda, Camphill Kimberton, East Wind, The Farm, Heathcote, Lama Foundation, Love Family, Madison Community Cooperative, Magic, Miccosukee Land Co-op, Occidental Arts & Ecology, Prag House, Rowe Camp, Sandhill Farm, Shannon Farm, Twin Oaks, and We’Moon Land. Born in that decade of hope and chaos, they survived the lull of 1975-1990 to become mother trees for many of the seedlings that sprouted in the next warm spell and are flourishing today.

The reason I’m highlighting this era is that the people experimenting with cooperative living then were mainly Baby Boomers when they were four or five decades younger. I think one explanation for the greater interest in community among gray hairs today is that there are a number of latent Hippies who didn’t scratch that itch back when Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead were performing live at Fillmore West.

This is a large age cohort, many of whom believe they were young adults at a special time in history. Have you ever listened to commercials for Oldies radio stations? (Go ahead and embarrass your kids, turn up the volume!)

Young men moved to Canada to avoid conscription into an unpopular war; people were questioning whether father really did know best; feminism and anti-racism were on the front burner (the crock pot cooking from which eventually led to Democrats choosing between a black man and a white woman for their Presidential candidate in 2008—something that was very hard to imagine in 1972, when a thoughtful George McGovern was getting crushed by Tricky Dick’s reelection juggernaut).

There was widespread experimentation with sexual mores and recreational drugs, and suburbia was assailed as a cultural wasteland. Those were exciting times and some of us didn’t get it out of our systems merely by following Timothy Leary’s advice to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Many who came of age in 1965-75 went on to lead relatively normal lives, but we didn’t necessarily forget those days of foment and what if…

Golden Girls & Silver (Haired) Boys

It’s pretty clear today that the nuclear family is simply not able to provide a decent quality of life for seniors unless they’re very well off. Kids are expected to leave home and not necessarily return to care for aging parents. In this bleak environment, seniors are increasingly thinking about options for aging in place, where there’s familiarity, dignity, neighbors who know you, and meaningful ways to contribute.

For the most part, this translates to some form of group living. Remember Golden Girls, the critically acclaimed comedy series that aired 1985-92? The premise was four older women figuring out how to make their latter years more vital, more fun, more affordable, and less isolating by living together—instead of alone or in a senior ghetto. They were a little ahead of their time, but not by much. While there are plenty of examples of people today (not just older folks) living together in informal enclaves of unrelated adults, the logical next step is intentional community, with full-spectrum demographics.

In many ways, intergenerational communities harken back to traditional extended families— the very thing we left behind when going nuclear. If you think of intentional communities as families of friends, there you are. To be sure, in recreating neighborhoods with benefits, participants are emphatically not yearning for the stultifying hierarchy and limited opportunities of yesteryear (think education, career, and partners picked out by Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Otto). They’re looking for connection, support, and context.

Information Age

It’s probably not a coincidence that the current wave of interest in community living grew simultaneously with easy access to the Internet and the explosion of inexpensive options in electronic communications. It’s now much easier to find out what’s out there and to learn from the experiences of others, greatly enhancing the chances of avoiding others' mistakes, or locating high-quality help when you don’t.

While community living is still the road less traveled, there’s at least a beaten path these days, as well as GPS and Google maps to help you navigate the road to Shangri-La.

Cohousing as the Missing Link

It happens that 1990 is also the time when cohousing established a foothold in the US. This is significant both because cohousing is the form of intentional community that looks most like traditional housing options (with somewhat denser, smaller houses), which makes it more accessible to people who are ready for something different but aren’t ready to jump off a cliff (which is what moving into community can look like to the immediate family left behind). 

Though cohousing is a growing segment of the Communities Movement, it’s less than 10% of the total. Nonetheless, that concept is drawing a majority of the community virgins who are north of 50. Without the concomitant rise of cohousing it would be hard to project the growth we’re seeing today in Boomers joining communities.

If a Boomer Rang, Would You Answer?

While mostly I see the expansion of seniors seeking community as a solid plus, it is not without its challenges. If a Baby Boomer applies for membership at your community how would you reply?

Overwhelmingly, communities are looking for members who offer the prospect of giving in proportion to what they receive. If a senior waits until this give and take is clearly out of balance, this will not be attractive. To be sure, there are plenty of valued contributions that a senior can make that don’t require a strong back, a strong checkbook, or outstanding lung capacity. Think accounting, legal, planning, organizing, research, correspondence, management, childcare, cooking, marketing, etc.

While community members do an outstanding job of being there for each other in time of need, it’s not very appealing if the prospective member presents as someone needy right off the bat. 

If it’s early in the group’s life (say less than 20 years old) and it was started mostly by younger adults, then there won’t be many older folks in residence yet and seniors will be welcome as a way to help normalize the age distribution. (It was true for me joining 17-year-old Dancing Rabbit last year. In a group of 50+ adults, I was one of a small handful of people over 60 and the welcome mat was out.) However, that’s not usually how it works. Mostly people want to join groups in which peers are already present. If you’re an older person attracted to a group in which seniors are already well represented, there may be nervousness in your would-be home about becoming too top heavy (it won’t work to have 70% of the population in wheelchairs).

There’s delicacy about how much communities can stretch to support those in need, and the first priority is to be there for established members, not for the ones yet to come. For that matter there’s a limit to what groups can do for each other even if no seniors join, since very few communities promise nursing home services, and aging is inevitable. Taken altogether, communities need to exercise considerable discernment about the limits of support, or else risk swamping the boat for everyone—which is an unpleasant kind of boomerang where good intentions come back to knock you in the drink. 

And nobody wants that.

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