Co-living experiment targets seniors in Lancaster County

Stacey Burling
The Philadelphia Inquirer

NEW HOLLAND — Deep in the rolling farmland of Lancaster County sits an experiment meant to address two of the great, looming crises of American aging: loneliness and access to safe, affordable senior housing.

The Thistledown Co-living House, built in New Holland a little over a year ago with the help of community 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 modern kitchen, living room and adjacent meeting room, and a loft. One bedroom is empty because of a recent death, but the 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.” They wistfully mention their friend who died. “I always prayed for a sister,” she told them, “and now I have four.”

That kind of connection was what CEO Steve Lindsey hoped for when he began toying with the idea of co-living at Garden Spot Village. He sees isolation, which is often worsened by poverty, as a health risk that shortens life. “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 to other people.”

Two experts on senior living said Thistledown is unusual even though the industry knows affordability is a problem as a wave of baby boomers enters older age. A report released in the journal Health Affairs in April estimated that 7.8 million Americans aged 75 and up 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 the kind of upscale senior housing that is common in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

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 (NIC), expects to see many new models of shared living as boomers age, including more intergenerational family living and sharing space with younger people such as college students. 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.

The model won a design award earlier this year from Senior Housing News. Lindsey said Kansas State University got a grant to allow architecture students to study Thistledown.

While many older people say they want to age in place, Lindsey thinks that reflects naivete about the challenges of aging, especially isolation.

He’d been reading about big co-living projects aimed at millennials, many of whom like the idea of sharing space and paying lower rent, and he remembered “The Golden Girls,” a TV show about four mature women living together in a big house. The problem with sharing a house in older age, he thought, was that everyone is at the mercy of the homeowner’s health. What if Garden Spot Village was the landlord?

Established in 1996, Garden Spot is a nonprofit, continuing care retirement community that provides apartments, freestanding homes, assisted living and skilled nursing care for close to 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 are much more expensive. Amenities include restaurants, exercise equipment, activities, food grown on site, a wood shop, and well-maintained grounds and common spaces. Opportunities to volunteer abound because Garden Spot wants to foster a sense of purpose.

Lindsey was well aware that many older people, who don’t have homes to sell for the entry fee and live on Social Security payments alone, cannot afford Garden Spot Village, a mission-driven organization meant to “enrich the lives of older adults as an expression of Christ’s love.” 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 already oversubscribed and uninterested in new providers. This would have to be a community project that challenged the middle-class idea that we each need our own home. People do, in fact, really want their own bedroom and bathroom, he decided, but what they really need is each other.

It helps that Garden Spot is in a community rich with builders, including volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Services. Many of Lindsey’s residents have worked on building projects for disaster areas and for Habitat for Humanity. Volunteers and clubs offered to help. When it came time to build the house, Franklin & Marshall College sent a couple busloads of freshmen over as part of their orientation. It cost around $300,000 to build Thistledown, about half what it would have cost without volunteers. Garden Spot and other organizations paid for the building.

Residents must have incomes of $25,000 or less — the average Social Security payment in the U.S. is $1,404 a month or $16,848 a year — and pay 30% as rent. Lindsey says that’s enough to cover monthly costs, with some left over for home maintenance.

Obviously, those numbers would present problems for organizations that operate in more expensive, less volunteer-oriented areas. Mace doubts this particular model will appeal to for-profit providers. “Clearly, there’s a subsidy going on here,” she said. Nonprofits with a source of income might be another matter.

Residents of Thistledown, who come from New Holland and nearby towns, are responsible for keeping the place clean, and Garden Spot maintains the grounds. The residents buy and cook their own food, although they can also purchase meals at Garden Spot Village’s restaurants. They have access to exercise facilities and activities. Three of the four women living in the house work and have cars. In the year the house has been open, two residents have died — one got hospice services at Thistledown — and a third decided to move elsewhere.

Rose Marie Sheaffer, 78, who used to live above a flower shop, liked the co-living idea as soon as someone from her church mentioned it. It feels safer to her. Ruth Dunlap, 74, who had a house, and Esther Courtney, 70, who had a townhouse, were considerably less enthused when relatives told them about the new program. In time, though, the work and money needed for home ownership became less appealing. And the new Garden Spot place, with its big windows and granite counter tops, looked awfully nice.

“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 who helped them make friends in the broader community across the street. Sheaffer doesn’t go there much, except with friends from church, but Dunlap uses the pool and exercise equipment, goes to the movies and frequents the library.

Social worker Jackie Berrios is available to referee disputes, but all agreed there hasn’t been much need for that. Berrios also vets new residents while giving the current residents a say about possible housemates. After a male resident died, the remaining women decided they wanted their house to be all-female. If someone’s health declines, it will be Berrios who decides when they have to leave. There is no guarantee of higher-level care at Garden Spot Village.

Shelves in the refrigerator and in cupboards are labeled with residents’ names. Courtney brought along a refrigerator and freezer, which greatly eased food crowding.

The women have not had to make lists of rules. Sometimes they cook and eat together. Sometimes they don’t. It has been easy, they said, to share the washing machine and cleaning duties. They just talk it out. They’ve cohosted big family parties, and they ate a Thanksgiving dinner together the weekend after the holiday. They got permission to decorate three Christmas trees. Aware that the house is a showplace for Garden Spot Village, they’re still working out how much they can personalize the common spaces, which have the bland feel of a model home.

Lindsey realizes that Thistledown is just a drop in a very big bucket, but he thinks it’s a start. There’s a bean field next to Thistledown that he hopes will soon be home to several more co-living houses.

He thinks there is also demand from people with higher incomes. “We look at it as a prototype,” he said, “and we think it is scalable.”