Deep in the rolling farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, sits an experiment meant to address two looming crises of American aging: loneliness and access to safe, affordable senior housing.
The Thistledown Co-Living House, built in New Holland a little more than a year ago with the help of volunteers, is a way for lower-income seniors to share space and living expenses while having access to a large retirement community operated by Garden Spot Village, a senior housing provider affiliated with the Mennonite church.
The 4,000-square-foot house has private bedrooms and bathrooms for five people, along with spacious common areas, including a kitchen, living room and adjacent meeting room, and a loft. One bedroom is empty because of a recent death; others are filled by four women in their 70s who are healthy enough to live independently. Strangers when they moved in, they now call themselves the “sisters of Thistledown.”
That kind of connection was what CEO Steve Lindsey hoped for when he began toying with the idea of co-living at Garden Spot. He sees isolation, often worsened by poverty, as a health risk. “We believe firmly that we’re all created to live in community … that we are our best selves when we’re living in healthy relationship with other people.”
Senior living experts said Thistledown is unusual — though the industry knows affordability is a problem as baby boomers enter older age. A report in the journal Health Affairs in April estimated that 7.8 million Americans 75 and older will be unable to afford assisted living in 2029. Aging experts have been pushing for models that address the needs of the “middle market,” people who make too much for government help, but can’t afford upscale senior housing.
Marc Cohen, co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston, said the Garden Spot Village pilot program is appealing because it combats isolation, likely will make residents feel safer and allows residents to split costs.
Beth Burnham Mace, chief economist for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care, expects to see new models of shared living as boomers age. She and her friends have talked about retiring together in a big house. “This might be the beginning of some of these alternatives,” she said.
Established in 1996, Garden Spot is a nonprofit, continuing-care retirement community that provides apartments, free-standing homes, assisted living and skilled nursing care for almost 1,000 people. Residents pay an entry fee of $90,000 to $450,000, and rent for independent living ranges from $1,300 to $2,626 a month; higher levels of care cost more. Amenities include restaurants, exercise equipment, activities, food grown on-site, a wood shop, and well-maintained grounds and common spaces. Volunteer opportunities foster a sense of purpose.
Lindsey was aware that many older people who don’t have homes to sell for the entry fee and live on Social Security payments cannot afford Garden Spot. He saw a need for more socioeconomic diversity.
Initially, he wanted to serve older people eligible for government subsidies but quickly decided the government was oversubscribed and uninterested in new providers. This would have to be a community project that challenged the idea that everyone needs their own home. People do want their own bedroom and bathroom, he decided, but they need each other.
It helps that Garden Spot is in a community rich with builders, including Mennonite Disaster Services volunteers. Volunteers and clubs offered to help. When it came time to build the house, Franklin and Marshall College sent a couple busloads of freshmen over as part of their orientation. It cost around $300,000 to build Thistledown, about half the cost without volunteers. Garden Spot and other organizations paid for the building.
Residents must have incomes of $25,000 or less and pay 30 percent as rent. Lindsey says that covers monthly costs, with some left for maintenance.
Thistledown residents, who come from New Holland and nearby, are responsible for cleaning; Garden Spot maintains the grounds. Residents buy and cook their own food, although they can purchase meals at Garden Spot Village’s restaurants. They have access to exercise facilities and activities.
Rose Marie Sheaffer, 78, who used to live above a flower shop, liked the co-living idea when someone from her church mentioned it; it feels safer to her. Ruth Dunlap, 74, who had a house in Ronks, and Esther Courtney, 70, who had a town house in Lancaster, were less enthused when relatives told them about it. In time, though, the work and money needed for homeownership became less appealing.
“I guess I was just tired of being alone, and I’m not alone here,” Courtney said. “It was a good move.”
Each was assigned to a Garden Spot Village resident to help them make friends in the broader community across the street. Sheaffer doesn’t go there much, but Dunlap uses the pool and exercise equipment, goes to the movies and frequents the library.
Social worker Jackie Berrios can referee disputes, but there hasn’t been much need. Berrios also vets new residents while giving the current ones a say in possible housemates. After a male resident died, the women decided they wanted their house to be all-female. If someone’s health declines, Berrios will decide when they have to leave.
The women have not had to make lists of rules. Sometimes they cook and eat together. It has been easy, they said, to share the washing machine and cleaning duties. .
Lindsey realizes that Thistledown is only a drop in a very big bucket, but it’s a start. There’s a bean field next to Thistledown that he hopes will soon be home to more co-living houses.
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