|ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Virginia is about aging, and also about living and housing, and eventually about dying. It is about all these - not as an ending or as a failing, but as an opportunity, a possibility. As far as we know, our affordable, mixed-income cohousing community is the first cohousing project in the United States exclusively for older adults. And it's the first residential community formed around the purpose of later-life spirituality.
In 1999 our group purchased 3.7 acres, and construction is now beginning for our 29 homes. They should be ready for move-in by the end of August, 2004. It's exciting to see the work of the past four years coming to fruition!
Our origins go back to 1967 when a group of women working in Appalachia in areas of community service and development organized the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS). The group later expanded to include men as well as women. As some members approached retirement age, we thought about forming a retirement community, and in 1995 formed a committee, "FOCIS Futures," to look into this. The idea for ElderSpirit was conceived and nourished by this committee.
For several years we had three or four meetings a year. After learning about the cohousing movement, we decided that cohousing would be the model we would follow, and agreed on the above-described values. Our group identified strongly with the ideas on later-life spirituality expressed by Drew Leder in his article, "Spiritual Community in Later Life: A Modest Proposal" (Journal of Aging Studies, Vol. 10, Number 2, pp. 103-116, 1996). We adopted the name "ElderSpirit" from this article.
Several people interested in the project lived in or near Abingdon, and they invited all who had shown interest in the project to come to an "Immersion into Abingdon." Our friends gave us a tour of the town; showed us the health, professional, and shopping resources for seniors; and told us stories and experiences of living in Abingdon. The town has many features that make it attractive for retireesÑa rails-to-trails walking, cycling, and running trail; the Barter Theatre; several arts and crafts establishments; a fine health activities center with indoor pool; and an annual arts festival.
I moved to Abingdon to look for property and found 3.7 acres bordering the Virginia Creeper Trail. To purchase the property, we borrowed $45,000 from 23 FOCIS members. The Retirement Research Foundation of Chicago awarded FOCIS a three-year grant for pre-development expenses, which provided salaries for a part-time staff. I was hired as project director, and another member, Jean Marie Luce, became community coordinator.
My first years have been what I'd call a "steep learning curve" - as my job was to get the physical project designed and built! I discovered that affordable, mixed-income multi-family housing is a new concept indeed. There was government money available for low-income housing, but no one knew how to combine this with housing for those who didn't fit the low-income guidelines. The final plan has 16 homes for rent to income-eligible (that is, low-income) residents, and 13 houses for sale.
Jean Marie was responsible for gathering more community members. A nucleus was formed when two members of the committee, Catherine Rumschlag and Kathy Hutson, moved from Big Stone Gap, Virginia to Abingdon, joining Dene, Jean Marie, and a couple who lived nearby, Anne Leibig and Dick Austin. Catherine and Kathy purchased a house adjacent to the community property, and prepared an apartment in their home for a friend, Lenore Mullarney.
Jean Marie was involved in and helped form an organization, the "College for Older Adults" (COA) in Abingdon. In the opening term of COA, she taught a class using Drew Leder's book, Spiritual Passages, and several participants in that first class have become community members. For three years a different member of the ElderSpirit group has taught a class during each term, with similar results.
Abingdon officials allowed ElderSpirit to be registered as a Planned Unit Development rather than as a subdivision, so our design wouldn't be limited by restrictions governing subdivisions. They also allowed fewer than the usual number of required parking spaces to provide more green space and less paving.
Future residents have been involved in decision-making from the beginning. Many participated with the architect in design sessions for the site plan and house plans, which resulted in small clustered one-story homes which are wheelchair accessible, including the bathrooms. Parking is on the periphery except for homes on the upper side of the slope, which have adjacent parking.
We have continued to meet to determine our by-laws as well as various policies and procedures. While an incorporated Owners Association is the legal owner of the property, most community decisions are made by an unincorporated Resident Association comprised of both homeowners and renters.
Construction of the homes and Common House is being financed through bank loans, however, construction of rental units is supported by grants and loans from the State. Since these are affordable housing units, the state requires that, to qualify, intended renters meet income requirements.
During our four years of forming community we've had meetings, celebrations, work projects, and retreats. We've helped each other in need. When Lenore Mullarney needed daily assistance because of her declining health, five members formed a Care Committee to help her. Lenore also hired someone to assist her when community members weren't available. She was in charge as long she was able, and during the final weeks of her life had the service of the local Hospice. Assistance and visits from friends who weren't available for regular help provided wonderful support during those times. Lenore died at home, surrounded by friends. The experience confirmed our hope and desire that in ElderSpirit Community we may be able to care for each other until we die.
Drew Leder visited our group in the spring of 2000 to conduct a workshop on later-life spirituality. It was so successful he repeated the workshops for two more years. These visits became the Annual Meeting of ElderSpirit Community. This year 40 people came to our seminar/retreat on later-life spirituality.
When we realized how the land would be disturbed by construction, member Dick Austin suggested a ritual of "asking permission of the Earth," and everyone agreed. Dick designed this ritual, which we carried out on a beautiful day in June, 2002, where we ask forgiveness from all the plants and animals that have long inhabited the property. The formal groundbreaking held March 13th, 2003, was attended by state and local officials, officers from participating banks, and about 50 friends.
At the present time, 14 of our 16 rental units have been reserved, and six of our 13 homes purchased. Our Residents Association meets monthly for a business meeting and potluck lunch.
The most recent couple who bought a house were from out of town. Wlen they couldn't attend a regular meeting we invited them to a special potluck supper. When they sent their earns money they expressed appreciation of tin hospitality, and "... even more, A wonderful spiritual power that you community has displayed." Their words encourage us to think that we have had some success in gathering a community with a desire and some experience of later-life spirituality.
What brought these people together? Each has his or her own story. For example:
Betty is in her 70s. Her niece works next to the ElderSpirit office, and Betty lives upstairs in her niece's house. Betty came to meet the office staff and hear about our plans, and she knew ElderSpirit would be her next home.
Irene lives in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. She was a friend of Kathy's and Catherine's when they lived there, and she was the first to sign up. Irene's daughter and her grandchildren live in Abingdon, so Irene has an added incentive to move here.
Mary is a widow and a retired English teacher living in Damascus, 20 miles from Abingdon. Mary teaches and attends classes at the College for Older Adults. She was an early member of the community, and serves on our Board and on the Admissions Committee.
Paschal is a friend of Mary's. When both their partners were living, the two couples did many things together. Mary introduced Paschal to ElderSpirit, and Paschal plans to buy a house in the community. He does complain a bit about the scarcity of men in the group, especially when he is the only man at a meeting. (Of our 26 members, five are men.)
Elizabeth comes from San Luis Obispo, California. She visited her daughter in Dungannon, Virginia, 30 miles from Abingdon. Her daughter knew about ElderSpirit, and Elizabeth liked the concept and the idea of being near her daughter.
Carol is Elizabeth's friend, and lives in Santa Barbara, California. Carol became interested, and came to Abingdon for the Seminar/Retreat in June, 2003. At that time Carol made her decision, and later completed the admissions process. Carol and Elizabeth will be moving to Abingdon in early October to participate in our gatherings, renting an apartment until the community dwellings are ready.
Martin and Ann saw our sign, "Future Site of ElderSpirit Community," on the Virginia Creeper Trail. They noted the phone number, and took the steps to become members.
We are all becoming a community as we meet and make decisions about our future life together, and enjoy the relationships we have now. As Drew Leder once observed about us: "You aren't just forming a community, you are a community."
Dene Peterson has been an administrator, as her mother said, "since the age of two." She has extensive experience in fundraising, and was responsible for a two-million dollar renovation project at the University of Michigan.