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Golden Girls Style: Communal Living for Baby Boomers?

Everybody likes the Golden Girls. Duh. Not everybody knows that their living situation isn't totally out of the question these days for a lot of baby boomers. We turned to Martha Nelson, investigative reporter and author of gals-living-together noval Black Chokeberry (and a boomer herself), to get deets on why so many past-middle-aged homeowners are suddenly shacking up with their friends.

In one sentence, what do you think the trend toward boomers living together indicates?
Martha Nelson: The trend toward boomers living together tells us we need each other.

You say boomers are moving in together more often than any generation in the past. What kind of stats are you seeing regarding this increase?
MN: Most cohousing communities in the U.S. were built between 2000-02. According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, we had 118 cohousing communities in 2011, with an equal number now in various stages of development. This means we are looking at a 100% increase in cohousing communities today. Most of these communities originally were planned and built on the east and west coasts, near urban areas. Today they are planned in cities and suburbs all over the country. Surveying the 118 existing communities in 2011, the Association reported that in these mostly multigenerational cohousing neighborhoods, the greatest number of adults were between 36 to 64 years old, with nearly all having residents between the ages of 65 to 80 years old.

Additionally, CBS News reported (cbsnews.com, 10/17/2011) that in a survey of 1,300 of its agents, Coldwell Banker Real Estate reported baby boomers to be the largest part of their customer base, with only 6% of boomers (ages 56-64) wanting a bigger home. In fact, 80% of the agents said their older boomer clients want to sell or trade down to smaller homes, and 47% said those clients were not interested in single family homes.

What's something important for boomers to look for when they search for a place to live?
MN: Older boomers (56-65) say often that they want to “live more simply now.” Typically this translates into smaller homes, more efficient and practical upkeep, environmentally responsible houses and neighborhoods, and a supportive community where having fun and being active is a key factor. But inevitably old age will come, so it is important for boomers to consider community living where shared resources, medical care, home care, communal meals, mobility, neighbors whom you know and trust, and safe haven are all part of their life. The lifestyle and safety of our community becomes as important, if not more important, than the house itself.

Are there any interesting benefits to living together past middle-age than as a young person with roommates?
MN: The most interesting benefits are that we have not only come of age, but we pretty much know ourselves now, and like ourselves. This creates a dynamic when living together that is different from when we were young adults struggling to find our way, our values, our defining ideas. More experienced now, we are better equipped to decide who would be a good fit for our life when deciding to live together. You really can get smarter as you age and learn life lessons. This allow us to love the good parts about each other, and accept the foibles, the irritations. We weren’t as good at exercising compassion when we were in our 20s.

Did you come across any funny roommate faux-pas stories specific to baby boomers?
MN: Roomate-ing is a perilous business, I think. The devil is in the details. A good friend of mine decided to move in with another friend to save money and be company for each other, and it was working fine for a day or two. But then they discovered a difference that turned the whole thing topsy-turvy. One of them was always too hot, the other too cold. Like Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean? You’d think they could compromise, but it just didn’t happen. Finally my friend said she could not take another hot house day of hearing, ‘I am freezing to death in here!’ and she moved out. One seemingly minor difference threw the whole arrangement into chaos. And roomate-ing is not like a marriage where you persist for a thousand different reasons, including keeping your sacred vows. Roommates are just that: mates. And sometimes even the best of mates can’t make living together work.