Retirees Create Alternative Communities

One of the only elder co-housing facilities in the United States is now being completed in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. ElderSpirit, a small community of homes and apartments in Abingdon, Va., is expected to be ready for its residents in November.

Aging As a Spiritual Quest

What's unique about ElderSpirit is its focus on late-life spirituality. Formed by a group of former Catholic nuns, the residents are committed to exploring the issues involved in the end of life and expectations about death.

"Our mission is a community of mutual support and late-life spirituality," said Dene Peterson, executive director of the Trailview Development Corp., the nonprofit group building ElderSpirit.

"Spirituality is what people were really looking for," said Peterson. But she emphasizes that this does not refer to organized religious services. "Spirituality doesn't mean religion," Peterson added.

ElderSpirit welcomes residents from a range of backgrounds and beliefs. "We've attracted Buddhists, and Hindus, and a Unitarian minister, as well as Presbyterians and Catholics," Peterson said. The community is developing a small prayer room, but "we're not going to call it a chapel because that usually denotes a Christian place," she said.

Old age, Peterson notes, is an appropriate time for spiritual growth. "You change as you grow older and you begin to reflect more," she said. "When your hair turns gray, go grow your soul."

Peterson believes this idea runs counter to the consumer model of retirement, which accents a life of leisure and play she describes as "trivial and boring."

She added, "The one who dies with the most toys wins, gets empty."

Gay and Gray

The Palms of Manasota looks like any other housing development in central Florida, with modest homes and condominiums on quiet, tree-shaded streets.

The residents are what make this community different. This is a retirement village designed and built expressly for gays and lesbians.

Mary Cumisky, 64, moved from New Jersey to The Palms of Manasota over a year ago with her partner, Carol Rinewalt, 59. "It's not really different from anywhere else," said Cumisky.

The community was started in 1996 by Bill Laing, who believed many gay retirees would not be welcomed in typical senior developments and would be unwilling to spend their final years living in the closet.

"It was Bill Laing's vision of us helping each other because we don't have the family connections that other people have," said Cumisky. Other gay and lesbian retirement communities can be found around the country, and more are planned.

Though retirement communities tend to be conservative, relationships with neighbors have been cordial for the most part.

"So far we haven't really had any problems," Cumisky said. "There've been a couple of times when kids rode around yelling out obscenities but we haven't had any real problems."

The Palms has, in fact, attracted retirees who are not gay -- a straight couple recently moved in, knowing they were buying property in a gay community, and the residents did nothing to dissuade their new neighbors.

"We decided that we've always been discriminated against, so we really shouldn't do it ourselves," Cumisky said.

"We're not very flamboyant -- we're a pretty conservative group," Cumisky added. "We're just regular people trying to live out our lives."

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