Sand River Co-housing- a model for senior communities

Sand River received the AARP’s Livable Communities Award in 2010 for good reason!   (Watch this video for more information.) One of a several US co-housing communities designed specifically for older residents, both the architecture and the social connections support aging in place.

Like the other two communities in Santa Fe, Sand River Co-housing’s buildings were constructed in the area’s earthy adobe-style, with pathways connecting the residents. A beautiful common hall includes dining and meeting space. Pam Gilchrist, one of the original residents, says that the community was launched by a spiritually inclined group of folks from Buddhist and Quaker backgrounds who already had experience with consensus decision-making. “That really made a difference,” says Pam. Some folks who came later were not as happy with this non-traditional model of governance but gradually adapted and grew into the culture. Some residents remained unhappy and later left the community.

Sand River photo

This group of elders is an active one, with folks volunteering and traveling on a regular basis. The community is primarily composed of single women, reflecting national demographics in cohousing and in retirement communities. Four members are in their 80s and several have caregivers helping.

Pam and resident Adele Strasser agreed that aging residents don’t always think ahead about their aging needs when they first enter co-housing. What will happen when they become frail, disabled or in need of nursing care? “This may not be the last stop,” says Pam. The community is grappling now with those questions as members age.

Why did Pam and Adele choose this community? It was a combination of happenstance (whom they met) and costs. Sand River, unlike many other communities, included nearly one-third “ affordable housing” units designed by the residents and built in collaboration with the Santa Fe Housing Trust. Purchasing in this community was also more affordable because the land was located farther out from the center of Santa Fe.

Affordability is one of the most critical and perennial challenges in co-housing. Co-housing units tend to cost more than typical condo homes because of a combination of green building costs, size and variety of shared amenities and activities, and location in high-end urban areas, like Portland, Santa Fe, and the Bay area.   Because of these costs, many are barred from entry, including young or low-paid workers, seniors on low, fixed-incomes, and people of color. Communities are now experimenting with adding low-cost additions, subsidized housing partnerships, and other solutions. The communities with the most success in this area typically have addressed the issue from the beginning and built or renovated units that are more affordable.

Adele, who was a “back to the land” young lesbian who lived a rural life outside Santa Fe for many years, felt reluctant to give up her quiet country life when her partner died several years ago. But she is now happy at Sand River, where she has other lesbian friends and supportive neighbors, as well as a thriving lesbian and Buddhist community with which to connect outside Sand River. She finds that an active spiritual practice has helped her “big time”.   Adele smiles.   “I can see my old patterns of opinions and resistance to others’ personalities,” she says. “I can relax now and not be so invested in the outcome.”

“We have a caring culture,” says Pam. “It’s good to have neighbors you can count on, but still have a sense of independence.” Things aren’t perfect, of course. Currently the community’s meals program is in a “slump”, says Pam. Residents are expected to put in at least 4 hours per month of service, but there is no clear accountability system.

Why do some older people prefer or choose a seniors-only community? Both Pam and Adele say they would have preferred to live in an intergenerational community, but are happy where they are now. The need for co-housing communities that support aging in place will only increase over the next decades. They are interested in a variety of models, such as the Village to Village Network, that facilitates  complex health and social needs for the frail elderly. Sand River’s approach remains to be seen. But both Pam and Adele report a high degree of satisfaction and gratitude to be able to live at Sand River in their elder years.

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