Category Archives: Housing and Relocation

Retirement Transitions Requiring Exploration

I have to downsize my library. Two years ago, while moving from a house to an apartment, I reduced shelf space by fifty percent and now a new move is demanding another one third reduction. Many of these books are easily replaceable and I know about the value of letting go to create space for the new but I really struggle to let go of books in my collection. Many have special meaning because of relationship with the author or a period of my life which allowed a deep dive into an interesting topic. The books tell the story of my journey.

A friend of mine who is also experiencing significant downsizing is taking photographs before disposal not so much of books but of a wide variety of valued possessions. I love the idea although letting go of the physical may not create the space for the emotional or spiritual to come forth. Maybe it is more of exploration. Henry David Thoreau said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” As we experience transitions before, during, and after retirement, and prepare to downsize and let go of our physical bookshelves, we can also examine our mental and emotional book shelves, and maybe let go of some things we have held onto for too long. I invite you to join me this week in examining what is really important in our lives and what we can let go.

Paul G. Ward
Principal

Re-Housing Our(elder)selves

About 15 years ago, we went in search of a new home, and a new type of home.  Somehow the concept of  co-housing had floated into our head space. We were attracted to the idea of  ‘building a better society, one neighborhood at a time,’ to quote the current official cohousing slogan.  This was pre-grandchildren and the appeal of sharing a planned community with people of all ages, including small children, seemed vastly more appealing than the 55+ adult gated communities then being marketed.  So we signed up for a co-housing conference in Maryland where a new community was forming, and the following year we toured four communities, Cantine’s Island, in Saugerties, NY, award-winning  Windsong in Langley, BC, Quayside Village in North Vancouver, and Trillium Hollow in Portland, OR (a city where some of our family already lived).  Of these, only Windsong was completed and occupied at the time.  We attended open houses at all of these, and spent a night at Windsong.  We even joined two of them at the minimal membership level. People were friendly and welcoming, some were close to messianic about their chosen form of living.  Forming a co-housing community is a long and challenging process and a few ‘burning souls’ are essential to sustain the effort.

We supported the living lightly on the planet philosophy of co-housing communities of which EcoVillage in Ithaca, NY, is perhaps the best known example.  We liked the self-governance ideals, the espousal of diversity.  We were attracted to the idea of a neighborhood planned to maximize contact among the residents, a kind of  y’all come, potluck ethos very different from most suburbs, including where we live now in South Florida.

The closest we’ve come to that kind of community sensibility was our eight years in Hoboken, NJ, where everything one needed was within walking distance.   If street life didn’t bring you into contact with a neighbor or two and the possibility of a social event, stoop life — hanging out on a balmy evening on your own front steps — certainly did.  It was a small town in every sense of the word, with Manhattan right across the Hudson River.

For us, the downside of co-housing was governance by consensus.  At one of the just-forming communities we toured, I sat next to one of the members in a meeting.  An open house usually includes a pot luck and an invitation to whatever is happening so visitors can get a sense of community process.  This meeting was about landscaping and it went on and on and on, and finally broke up with no decision.  The woman looked at me very kindly and said, “If you’re serious, get used to it.”  I gather that some communities have modified this form of governance.

Today, as co-housing has evolved and grown (there are communities in 37 states and several Canadian provinces), there is more variation in community aspirations including the introduction of the concept of co-housing for elders (a word I prefer) developed by architect and co-housing in America champion, Chuck Durrett.  I’ve heard Chuck speak at an American Society on Aging session and his arguments (read here) for elders living in a community are starting to make a lot of sense to me…again.  I guess you could say it’s deja vu all over again, but with a sense of urgency that I could not have experienced in a pre-grandchilden, pre-Inconvenient Truth, Union of Concerned Scientists report world.

More reading:

Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, Charles Durrett

See also: Dr. Bill Thomas’s The Greenhouse Project

Live Longer, Lighten Up

With a headline like that, you’re expecting some dieting tips a la Dr. Mehmet Oz, right?  Nope.  What inspired this post were two things.

First, this morning, we took a walk along the beach and I found myself wondering who lives in these sprawling homes so precariously perched along the water as if challenging the next hurricane to take them out?  But the better question is why anyone needs that much space.  There are two double-wide homes in particular, next to each other, in competition perhaps.  I can’t help but think how much energy must go into maintaining this kind of lifestyle, not to mention the stress on the body/mind.

Second, when we returned to our relatively modest home seven miles inland, I opened up my laptop to Seth Godin’s blog and as often happens found a post that spoke to me.  It is built around an article about living more lightly from a devoted backpacker.  So, I’m looking around my desk and, yikes!  Laptop, printer/phone/fax combo, lamp, another phone, Rolodex, cup of pens, most of which I never use, stapler, holders for this and that, box of mints, post-it notes.  Then, the tangle of wires under the desk and the stack files of papers on the floor…let’s not even go there.  I’m nauseous.

One of the things you realize as you age is how little you really need to be contented.  In a warm climate, it’s even less: a pair of shorts, t-shirt and sandals and you’re dressed.  A piece of fruit, half a bagel and tea, and breakfast is done.  A good book, a good conversation, a walk in nature — what could be better?  Thoreau’s advice (Simplify!  Simplify!) rings louder in my ears these days, and I find myself less tempted by the life-is-beautiful catalogs that continue to arrive in my mailbox every week.

That said, I’m the last person to give advice on clutter, so just read the link and see if it opens up a space in your head like it did in mine — the right place to start.

Hell No, We Won’t Go!!

Is assisted living, or its even less appealing twin, housing for the elderly once known as the nursing home, in your future?  I am amazed at how many people, even those who seem to be doing everything to stay healthy and engaged in life, see this as inevitable.  It is as if they have absorbed the rhetoric of the long-term care industry, so the only question is whether they can afford the premiums now to safeguard their future.  My question is, what kind of future are we talking about? 

My 92 year old mother has been in a nursing home (she prefers ‘hospital’) for three years.  It is in Canada and therefore the costs are affordable — about $2500/month for everything, including her complex assortment of meds.    The staff is excellent but overworked.  There are programs like painting class and baking, a hair and nail salon, various religious activities including a Catholic mass twice a month (the Zetter Center is Lutheran-affiliated), and every so often, pub night with a cash bar and entertainment.  Yet, for all that, you cannot escape the reality that it is a kind of incarceration where you don’t get to decide when to eat or bathe and dress or undress, or even when to use the toilet.  Hardly a day goes by when I  don’t wish I had the ability to care for my mother myself.  And I am in awe of those of us, who aren’t exactly spring chickens ourselves, who do just that — care for our elders in our own homes.   It’s one of those mixed blessings of longevity that we haven’t quite figured out yet.  A good subject to bring up with our own children while we can make such decisions (another topic for another post).

Visiting my mother has firmed my resolve to resist such a fate at all costs.  So I was excited to come across the story about a bunch of feisty women, Canadians, too, as it happens, who have a very different vision of how to house ourselves better as we age.  Here is a brief excerpt:

Control of Our Lives

We don’t want just to be taken care of, we want to participate.We are baby boomers who moved from watching TV shows like Father Knows Best to reading Betty Freidan and Germaine Greer. We took to heart Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. We fought to change the society we were living in then because we believed in having more control over our own lives as women. And we’re not about to give up the control we’ve worked so hard for. We want to run the place, not have our decisions made by a board of directors made up of guys in suits.  Herizons magazine’s cover story, Raise the Roof.

More mind-openers for you:

Aging-Friendly Cities

There have been reports that the migration of older adults to Florida has slowed, in fact, it may be starting to reverse itself.  As an older adult resident of the state since 2003, I have an idea why this could be happening: we have to drive a car just about everywhere.  For most families, two cars are an absolute necessity.  Even many couples of a certain age whose full time working days are behind them, feel they must have two cars.   So when driving becomes difficult, or one decides for any number of reasons to quit driving, you become dependent on limited bus service or the kindness of friends to get around.  Of course, if you are fit and live within a mile or so of basics like grocery, bank, drug store, community pool, friends, you can walk.  And if you can and do, you will actually improve your level of fitness as well as maintain your social and community connections.  But the truth is, with few exceptions — Del Ray Beach and Lake Worth come to mind — your place of residence will be far from downtown or anything resembling one.

Living here makes me nostalgic for New York City and Hoboken, NJ,  two urban areas we’ve lived in where owning a car was not only unnecessary, but given the difficulty of finding parking and the high cost of it, could be viewed as a  liability.  Although people complain about it, for my money New York has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, both above and below ground.  Hoboken is a mile square, so nothing is very far away.   A walk to corner to get the newspaper or a quart of milk often meant you’d run into a friend or neighbor and have a chat.  You might wind up having coffee together, or getting invited to something interesting.  You had to work at being isolated.

It comes as no surprise that visionary city planning with an eye on the aging population focuses on redesigning areas that address what older adults want most: staying put, maintaining independence and walking communities.  Read this great article by Glenn Ruffenach in the Wall Street Journal for some of the newest ideas on this important development, and where the new aging friendly communities are.  If you don’t wish to move, perhaps you can explore the possibility of making changes to your own.

Confessions of an ex-snowbird

About half of our friends still split their year between Florida and some other location, but we’ve dropped dual residency and I feel all the better for it. When you turn the key in the lock of a home in South Florida, it is always with the slight trepidation that the hurricane shutters you invested in will fail to live up to the advertising. And in our case, on the other end of I-95, was a home vulnerable to snow, ice and frozen water pipes. We crossed our fingers, packed our important documents in a portable file, loaded the car and headed North or South as the case might be, twice a year. Owning two homes meant a full stock of favorite kitchen knives, pots and pans, linens, food processor, spice rack, exercise equipment, all the things we found indispensable to a comfortable life. It meant shutting down or reinstating phone, mail and Internet service, a process that was seldom as glitch-free as one might hope. Clothing traveled back and forth in the car because it was always warm where one was headed. I did read of one snowbird couple who keeps a duplicate set of clothing in each location.

Of course, Americans are a people perennially on the move, so the desire to ‘winter’ in one place and ‘summer’ in another does not seem particularly strange, in fact, it is a choice to which many aspire as a symbol of prosperity and the good life. For the wealthiest, even two homes will not suffice. That’s may explain why there is such a thriving business in caretaking (see The Caretaker Gazette).

But for me, snowbirding began to feel tiresome, wasteful and ultimately unsustainable. My personal epiphany didn’t arrive with the current fad for thrift that has taken hold of our country. It was the realization that staying in one place meant committing to one community, one town, one weather system, warts and all. Owning (furnishing, maintaining, insuring, etc.) two residences makes one vulnerable to the grass-is-greener curse. It reminds me of a cat I once had that drove me crazy by never being happy for long on the side of a door I had just closed behind it.

If you’ve ever done it you know that it is considerably harder to divest oneself of the two-home lifestyle than to get into it in the first place, when stuff happens more slowly, almost without you realizing how much you are accumulating. If you find yourself in this position, hope that your children will still want grandma’s rocking chair or the oil paintings you found so irresistible and now detest. Or that they are not somewhere in their own second home acquisition or divestment phase. We change. Our stuff remains stuff. Hello eBay. Hello Craig’s List.

Our paring down process continues in this second year of single home ownership. The boxes of family albums may never leave the attic of a the child who lives North of the Mason-Dixon (unless or until the family moves). I think of it as partial payment for the mountain of dirty laundry hauled home from college.

No disrespect to my many friends who continue their annual migrations, but I feel more liberated, grateful for, and contented with just one home, especially when I read about the thousands of those who have lost the only home they did have.

Homecoming

This is probably not the best time to bring up home values since many of us have seen the valuation of our homes drop significantly over the last year or so.  This is all the more painful if we’ve come to think of our homes more as nest egg than as nest.  But since the housing follies are where the current financial meltdown began, I’m going to do it anyway.  I’ll begin with a caveat: Economics 101 was not my favorite subject and my understanding of finances is primitive.  That said, I know a sound explanation for a complicated problem when I encounter it, so if you are trying to understand how we got into this mess, I recommend you check out a 60 Minutes edition called House of Cards which aired in January this year. This past Sunday (October 5), a 60 Minutes report updated that information, A Look at Wall Street’s Shadow Market. It was chilling.

What I want to explore here is a different kind of value altogether: the value of a roof over your head, whether you own it or rent it.  To put it into context: homelessness is on the rise in America.  Not only that, homelessness among people in their 50s and 60s who once enjoyed a middle-class income, is also soaring.  In No Place to Call Home, the current issue of the AARP Bulletin describes the plight of older people — some 4,000 Americans over the age of 55 — sleeping in their cars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, CA, one of the most affluent of American cities, in many instances because they lost their homes to foreclosure.  Kind of brings the magnitude of the current crisis home, doesn’t it?

Homeownership has long been the American Dream, the one thing we were willing to save and sacrifice and postpone gratification for.  Today, the notion of 20% down and proof that your income could cover loan payments sounds positively antique.  One of the things banks always looked for — and these were typically a local branch where you did your other other banking so they knew you — was that your mortgage and real estate taxes not exceed 25% of your gross monthly income.  Those were the rules and, like them or not, they concentrated the mind wonderfully.

Some time in the 80s, as homes in many suburbs began to appreciate significantly, the idea of a home as an investment, or something that you could borrow more against, and even ‘flip’ to make money, came into being.  It seemed to have happened overnight.  One moment, you were perfectly content with a 30 year mortgage at 7% on a property you’d bought for 2.5 times your gross family income (another guideline), and the next, everyone had a strange gleam in their eyes.  You couldn’t go to a backyard cookout or have coffee with a friend without real estate being Topic #1.  Novelist Ann Beattie wrote of moving from her Virginia suburb to a rural area because she could not stomach this conversation any longer.

The idea that one’s home could become the source of significant wealth was very hard to resist for most people.  As long as homes continued to appreciate, salaries were rising and there were tax incentives to trading up, it made sense to do so.  The idea was that one day, you could sell that big house, downsize to something smaller, and pocket the difference.  Indeed, this was how many intended to finance a portion of their retirement savings, and for many it worked.  For a long time, trading up fever ruled. People who felt justified in buying as much house as they could carry were taking on financial risks they might never had considered had it been a different kind of investment.

Some how, we lost sight of the fact that our homes were valuable for the kind of life (as opposed to lifestyle) they provide for us.  They represent shelter, safety, refuge, the one place where, as Robert Frost famously wrote, “when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”  I read those lines as a deep sense of responsibility to each other and for one another, a feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves, of putting down roots, of having reasons to give as well as to get.  As older Americans, let’s model to others that we can, we must, go home again.