Dreaming of Sustainable Communities For All

Yesterday we celebrated the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a transcendent figure who will always occupy a special place in our nation’s history for his selfless advocacy on behalf of peace and justice. In addition to equal rights and nonviolence, Dr. King was also a proponent of community self-reliance and cooperative ventures. He understood that collaboration not only improved the economic conditions of a community, but also empowered the individuals within it to take control over their lives and form free associations with others in the pursuit of common interests.

With a new generation entering elderhood in droves, many of them without the traditional family structures that have supported elders in the past, Baby Boomers will need to discover new ways to unite together and form communities of common interest and support. Phoenix Commons intends to blaze a trail for this new generation of seniors, as the first senior cohousing community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Future members are already meeting regularly to explore various ways to share resources and knowledge, working together to create a vibrant, autonomous community of conscious aging.

Aging in community should be an option for every senior, regardless of income. If you are interested in aging cooperatively with others but cannot afford to join Phoenix Commons, you should look into the CAN Project (Collaborative Aging Network), recently launched by Elders Village, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides educational and community building resources to seniors in the SF Bay Area. Funded by the Making A Big Difference grant awarded by Coming of Age (Bay Area), the CAN Project will form a network of senior volunteers, trained to serve as peer-to-peer counselors to other seniors interested in cooperative housing and other forms of collaboration. This project has the potential to significantly amplify awareness and knowledge of cooperative aging concepts on a grassroots level, and we support them wholeheartedly. For more information, be sure to visit the Elders Village website.

The James Gray Story

James Gray lived a rather glamorous life, one could say, serving the crème de la crème of British society as an executive butler. Raised in one of Ireland’s notorious industrial schools, James embraced domestic work and went on to serve in some of the most luxurious estates and castles, supporting global dignitaries such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister John Major, along with Britain’s royal family. The personal photos in his home are evidence of a fast-paced former life of parties, traveling, and the exhilarating feeling of being at the center of elite culture. Yet now, at age 85 and living alone at home in London, all James wanted for Christmas was some company.

The last time James Gray had seen anyone on Christmas Day was ten years ago, when he visited his accountant. Without any relatives, and all his friends either deceased or relocated to faraway lands, James wanted to avoid last year’s Christmas routine: a solo dinner of smoked salmon and prawns, and finally some television to drown out the melancholy silence. He had an idea… what if he put an advertisement in the paper asking for guests? According to James, “All I was looking for with my advert was half-a-dozen pensioners to have Christmas dinner with so I would not be lonely once again this year.” With some help from the Irish Post, James got much, much more than that – hundreds of cards and letters from all over the world, and a nice couple that devoted their entire Christmas Day to keeping James company.

James’ predicament is, unfortunately, extremely common among seniors in the Western world, who are more and more likely to be aging without any children or relatives on which to count, and a social support system that naturally gets frayed over time. The natural antidote to this age-related isolation is senior cohousing, a tight-knit community that can make sure none of its members are lonely, not on holidays or any other day. James Gray was lucky that his story received publicity, which led to him getting the company he so desired. Millions of other seniors are not quite as lucky, which is why we encourage everyone to look into senior cohousing, whether at Phoenix Commons or elsewhere, as part of their retirement planning.

Social Psychology and the Wisdom of Senior Cohousing

A few weeks ago, Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki blogged about one of his favorite scientific experiments, performed back in the 50’s by Stanley Schachter. Participants were told they would receive a series of electric shocks, and then asked if they would prefer to wait in a room alone or with other people. When the participants were told that the shocks wouldn’t hurt at all, they expressed no preference for either waiting room. But when they were told that the shocks would be quite painful, a significant majority chose to wait with other people. This result isn’t all that shocking (pardon the pun), as we all know that humans have a natural propensity to huddle together in times of adversity.

Where it got really interesting was in Schachter’s follow-up study. Participants expecting painful shocks now had three choices: to wait alone, to wait with others expecting shocks, or to wait with people who would not receive any shocks. In this scenario, the preference for collective stoicism did not apply to the random strangers, as the participants only wanted to be around those who shared their fate. Zaki’s conclusion?:

This suggests that the benefit of crowds depends on our belief that others share our experiences.

Of course, this is not to imply that aging has anything to do with electric shock treatment! Our elder years are ripe with possibility for personal growth, and have been shown to be the happiest time of life for most people. However, aging can present some significant challenges, and these scientific studies provide empirical evidence for our instinctual human desire to face such challenges in the comfort of a supportive group. Intentional senior communities like Phoenix Commons address this element of human nature by creating nurturing environments in which members can consistently rely on each other for moral support, in both good times and bad.

Evolution, the Human Brain, and the Need for Community

Aristotle once wrote: “Man is by nature a social animal […] Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” A new book by leading social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, reviewed in an article in the Atlantic magazine, presents a modern version of the same argument. Drawing on a wide range of research studies in psychology and neuroscience, Lieberman makes the case that the human brain is literally wired for social interaction and belonging. It’s worth reading in full, but here are some exceptionally interesting excerpts:

One of the great mysteries of evolutionary science is how and why the human brain got to be so large. […] Scientists have debated this question for a long time, but the research of anthropologist Robin Dunbar is fairly conclusive on this point. Dunbar has found that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size – specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer – is the size of its social group. We have big brains in order to socialize.

So it’s safe to say that the human brain did not evolve to be such a powerful and hyper-complex organ in order to just sit around alone and twiddle one’s thumbs. Ever since the dawn of time, the trend has been for humans to develop more and more complex social systems, and ever larger brains to go with them. The synergy that results from harmonious social relations is clearly an evolutionary advantage.

When economists put a price tag on our relationships, we get a concrete sense of just how valuable our social connections are – and how devastating it is when they are broken. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbors on a regular basis is said to increase your happiness “income” $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie – here, in the case of getting divorced – it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

The exact figures here can be debated, but the broader point is still valid: our social connections generally make us happier. There has long been a great wealth of research linking social support to better outcomes, both physical and mental, but putting a monetary figure on the happiness produced by our relationships is a really striking way to demonstrate this dynamic.

To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain – a broken heart can feel like a broken leg, as Lieberman puts it in his book. […] A broken leg and a broken heart seem like very different forms of pain. But there are evolutionary reasons why our brains process social pain the way they process physical pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Social pain signals that we are all alone – that we are vulnerable – and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there.

We put up psychological defenses and pretend we can be just fine on our own, but our very neurobiology compels us to seek and maintain the company of others. This research also shows that the mental pain of isolation, loneliness and depression, which affect so many seniors with mobility issues, is every bit as real and devastating as physical pain. The aging process is not a “threat” but it does come with many challenges, and intentional aging in community is a fun and intelligent way to manage those challenges with the companionship of others, just the way nature intended.

Aging and Community: A Natural Fit

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat recently ran a story about a small cohousing community in Mendocino County (California) named Cheesecake (the article originally appeared in the New York Times). Besides its endearing name and secluded, wooded environment, one of the most striking aspects of the community is how the members have learned to deal with the issues of aging and care.

Cheesecake wasn’t formed with aging in place as a primary concern. The original 11 members were simply a mix of married couples and single women in their fifties and sixties who wanted to live a cooperative lifestyle far from the city. The community even decided initially that anyone who became seriously ill would have to leave, since “Cheesecake wasn’t designed to function as a hospital or hospice.” Yet as the members became older and started requiring more care, the community re-examined its thinking:

When Dick Browning, a retired school principal, brought his wife back after her 2003 surgery, residents began appearing at the Brownings’ door within the hour, he said: “They asked, ‘Can I be the one to bring tea to you?’ ‘Can I bring flowers every day?’ ” […] Cheesecake was envisioned for happier times, but for some of its residents it also seems to have made the difficult ones more bearable.

The Successful Aging workshop series led by Elders Village (and sponsored by Phoenix Commons) explains the benefits of proximity and intention while aging, which allow neighbors to provide the much needed social and moral support, while professional caregivers can be hired at affordable group rates to do the heavy lifting. This is not only theory; there are numerous examples of this approach leading to optimal aging and healing, and it looks like the Cheesecake community have figured this out on their own. The genius of cooperative aging, and the attractiveness of intentional communities like Cheesecake and Phoenix Commons, is perhaps most simply stated in the article: “No one should have to grow old alone.”

For more information on how to age successfully through community, please contact Elders Village and ask about the Successful Aging course: (510) 217-8527. A complimentary course orientation workshop is being held this Thursday (Oct. 24th, 6:30-8:30 pm), so call or email now to reserve your spot!

Now Coveted: A Walkable, Convenient Place

Today, the most valuable real estate lies in walkable and bikable urban locations. A location’s walkability is defined by how much of the everyday needs can be met within walking, transit, or biking distance. The New York Times article by CHRISTOPHER B. LEINBERGER, a George Washington University School of Business and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Now Coveted: A Walkable, Convenient Place, describes how housing value is positively correlated to walkability scores.