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Can this co-living experiment make housing affordable for middle-class seniors?

Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Home and Consumer News

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. -- Deep in the rolling farmland of Lancaster County, Pa., 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 due to 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?


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