Return of the Golden Girls: How Seniors are Creating Community

Rachel Pomerance

After a 30-year career in human resources in Silicon Valley, Marianne Kilkenny envisioned a different life for her golden years - one that looked like "The Golden Girls," the hit sitcom about four senior women living in a Miami group house. In her case, Asheville, N.C. would set the scene for her post-corporate life. Divorced, without children and determined not to age in a nursing home, Kilkenny moved in 2006 with "the explicit purpose of nudging, encouraging, cajoling women like me to live in community, whatever that might look like," she says.

She got her own nudge a few years later. Padding around her house on a snowy Christmas Day, Kilkenny slipped down her stairs and faced the fear that she says plague so many who live alone: "What if I fall down the stairs, and no one finds me?" She was able to get to the freezer for ice and to the phone for help. But the scare spurred her to join a four-person group house, an experience that has put Kilkenny at the forefront of growing efforts to create innovative communal living options for aging baby boomers.

[Read: Top Recommended Health Products: Pain and Inflammation.]

"I think of it as the aging-in-community movement," says Kilkenny, 63, founder of the Women for Living in Community Network and author of the forthcoming book, "Your Quest for Home: A Guidebook to Find the Ideal Community for Your Later Years."

[Read: Getting Better With Age: Why Seniors are More Satisfied.]

The new generation of seniors demanding alternatives to traditional nursing homes is not necessarily surprising. "Baby boomers have always kind of forged new ground," says Amy Goyer, AARP's home and family expert. "They don't want to be isolated. They're very active. They have lots of interests. And they see themselves as continuing to have interests, and grow, and learn and kind of shape their life, including their living situation, in a way that supports the lifestyle they want to live."

Shared housing is one such option. Typically a women's arrangement, the experience can provide financial, physical and emotional security, Goyer says, noting that women tend to live longer and be less financially secure than men. She also says that Americans over age 50 are less likely to be married and living with a spouse than they once were and that one in five women turning 50 have no children. In this context, these households offer a sense of community - a shared responsibility for each other as well as the workload. According to Goyer, the thinking goes: "When one of us has to have a knee replacement, the others will pick up the slack."

[Read: Can 'New Urbanism' Bring Health to Your Neighborhood?]

Another model is "villages," neighborhood networks that provide services for what's known as aging in place - which about 90 percent of people hope to do, aging experts say. "Very often the impetus to come together is around socialization," so neighborhoods will organize potluck dinners or theater outings, says Katie Smith-Sloan, chief operating officer and executive director of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Ageing.

The concept isn't that different from an older American tradition - neighborliness, says Smith-Sloan. "Neighbors helping neighbors - that's just the American way." This is just a more formal version, she says, explaining that villages may incorporate as nonprofits, formalize memberships, contract with vendors and boast websites and newsletters.

[Read: Creating Healthier Communities: Who's Doing It, and How?]

In the Washington, D.C. area, some 20 to 30 such villages have sprung up in downtown and suburban neighborhoods, even one that serves residents in a high-rise building, Smith-Sloan says. In addition to aging in place, this model lets people to continue living among different generations. And in some cases, the villages themselves are multigenerational, enabling young and old members to trade services - like a drive to the doctor in exchange for babysitting help, she says.

The first village model began in 2002 in Beacon Hill, a neighborhood of Boston, according to Candace Baldwin, the Village to Village Network's director of strategy for aging in community. Since then, 115 villages have opened throughout the country, serving more than 20,000 older Americans. At least 120 villages are in development, she says.

"It's a very interesting movement of people who are really coming together in community-based organizations that they are creating," Smith-Sloan says.

Of course, plenty of challenges can come up as people navigate new living arrangements, particularly when sharing a home. "You have to match your personalities," says Goyer, who recommends setting house rules and routine meetings to air any issues. Once people adjust, "they tend to really like the sense of community," she says.

[Read: Plant a Garden. Grow a Community.]

And many boomers have the generation's characteristic spunk to chart a new course.

As Kilkenny says,"We're gonna do this, and if you want to bring your husband, your dog, and your cow or whatever, do it. Don't wait."

For her part, she's already reaped the benefits of communal living. Not long after moving into her new home, Kilkenny fell again - this time over a tree root outside the house. But this time, she heard, "Marianne, are you OK?" coming from the house window. "I didn't have to get up myself. I didn't have to toddle over to the refrigerator," Kilkenny says. "She was out there in a flash to help me. What a difference."

[See: 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100.]

For more information about communal living, visit Kilkenny's website and a couple that she recommends: The Blueprint of WE and Let's Share Housing! Other resources include AARP, Village to Village Network and The Cohousing Association of the United States.