Aging: A Different Kind of Utopia / by Anne Kreamer

Do you ever find yourself up late at night worrying about what's going to happen to you when you get old? Anxious about whether you've managed finances well enough to take care of your needs for the long haul? And for those of you with kids, concerned that they might not want to deal with your problems, particularly if they no longer live anywhere nearby? Well, I do. But I've also started thinking about different kinds of ways I might proactively allay some of those concerns. About 20 of us have been members of the same New York City book club for almost a decade. The average age is around 60; I think I'm the youngest. Almost three years ago we started a sort of parlor game imagining different ways we might live as we got older. And given that women will survive their husbands by an average of seven years - and all the women in our club are straight and married - the speculative elder-world of our all-female book club was, not surprisingly, female.

We thought we could pool all of our resources and buy a huge house in Manhattan. Each of us would have our own bedroom and we'd share the communal spaces. The savings we'd gain by not having individual homes we could use to hire a cook, a driver, a nurse (if needed) and probably an exercise instructor.

If we were fortunate in our planning we might even have enough capital to buy a second home maybe at the beach. All of us like each other and the idea of creating our own micro-community, a group with whom we could go out to dinner, and attend lectures and films and concerts and plays and remain culturally and socially active is appealing. And fiscally smart - why replicate many times over what we could consolidate?

A different fantasy, which includes my husband, is to buy a bit of land in some mild-winter locale with several friends. It would be a second home for some of us over the next decade or so, and a principal home for some of us in the years beyond that.

Each of us would build our own compact house - bedroom(s), living room, office(s) or studio - and again share communal spaces like the kitchen and dining areas. In this scheme we would also have a gardener/handyman, a pool and (when I'm driving the fantasy) a tennis court. The notion being that if we merged our resources we might be able to create something pretty grand, physically and socially.

As my husband and I have shared this notion with others they get excited. Since our kids still live at home, we haven't yet gone so far as to talk with a lawyer about the legal particulars of how this might work. Clearly there are lots of gritty problems like taxes and maintenance and inheritances and governance to figure out, but I've discovered that we aren't alone in thinking about innovative ways to create a new kind of community.

What we are talking and fantasizing about is called an Intentional Community - as the Intentional Community Web site defines it: "Intentional Community is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision." I scrolled through the site and discovered thousands of people forming all sorts of living groups.  The site is a great resource for any of you thinking about this.

I also decided to search "aging in place" and came up with 21 million hits, many of them excellent starting reference points. The term usually refers to retrofitting your current house so that you can stay living there no matter how old you get.

The trick with aging in place is to make the environment brighter and easier to navigate with shelving and appliances all made effortlessly accessible. It is also important to "outsource" other kinds of needs you might have - like the ones I imagine with my book club: driving, meal preparation, household maintenance, cleaning, and health care.

I find the sociological implications of these trends really interesting. As our families have splintered across the country, lots of us are clearly interested in creating new models for comfortable, collective living. And most of us are loath to burden family living far away when we age, yet the majority of us will need help in managing day-to-day life if we're lucky enough to beat the odds and make it past 80.

I think the industries serving this segment will only expand as more of us boomers tackle how we live in the future.