An opportunity to help house our aging population | Reporter’s notebook

Community. The very word conjures a sense of security, of belonging, of being among familiars and knowing someone has your back. As a newcomer to the San Juans, that sense of community was one of the first things I appreciated. And, during a rather challenging first year, it has had my back.

Curiously, after 17 years on Florida’s west coast, I never felt a sense of community like I have on Orcas Island after a mere 20 months. Like many of you, I was drawn here for reasons I’m still sorting out. And, after living on both coasts, the midwest, the mountains and abroad, this is it. I don’t see myself moving anywhere else.

Now, as a numerically aging adult who recently had, shall we say, “medical surprises,” I’m more aware of the aging process than I care to admit. And I know, on many levels, I am not alone in these changes.

For some, health issues may ultimately result in the need to move off the island; perhaps to live closer to family, children and grandchildren or closer to medical treatment. More of us, I suspect, will stay and age in place. Many who will stay are single, perhaps widowed, others, partnered. Some are retired; some, semi-retired, working a bit to supplement a pension or Social Security. Many own their own home; others rent. To be sure, our islands’ affordable housing programs make it possible for many seniors to remain in their communities.

However, as prices increase and long-term homeownership and rental opportunities lose ground to the economic benefits of short-term tourist rentals, the future of long-term affordable housing for an aging island population is uncertain.

Single with no children, I’ve often thought about how my housing situation would look in the years ahead. I’ve never owned my own home, choosing instead the freedom to move about the country and the world. Besides, I’ve never been sure of where I wanted to settle down until now. I’m not the only person on the planet, or on Orcas, who feels this way.

For some time, a few friends — also older, single and childless — and I have mused about creating a housing community where we’d live independently but in close proximity, share a common space as needed, collectively maintain a garden for fruits and vegetables and be there for each other. Accommodations could include tiny houses of various forms, manufactured homes and liveable homes on wheels. The vision always included eco-friendly sustainable living with, at minimum, gardens, solar and recycled water usage.

Perhaps the most important element in all this, however, is community. No one would have to worry about dying alone, or suffering an injury that required an extra pair of hands for a few days. Community — a place where someone has your back. It can also be called co-housing, and if ever there was an environment for such a community, it’s the San Juan Islands.

In a study released in 2017, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies projected that the “number of U.S. adults 65 years of age and older will grow from 48 to 79 million over the next two decades, and predicted that 50 million households, or 1 out of every 3 in the United States, will be headed by someone 65 and older, Further, studies predict that the number of people 80 and older who overwhelmingly want to age in place, will double to 24 million.”

Sadly, our society as a whole is ill-equipped to handle housing for this growing demographic, a fiercely independent population that eschews nursing homes as a viable housing option and who sees no reason why they can’t live out their years in an interdependent environment.

And, while most seniors own their homes, the housing study found that the number of renters will increase from 21 percent in 2015 to 23 percent in 2035.

Offering “a new way to live as seniors,” PDX Commons in Portland, Oregon calls itself a “collaborative community of supportive friends.” The community is based in a four-story contemporary condominium with 27 private living spaces and more than 5,000 square feet of common spaces. Residents range in age from mid-50s to late-70s half of whom are couples, the other half singles.

The core cohousing group collaborated with Works Progress Architecture to design the building and the individual units on the second, third and fourth floors. They include one-, two- and three-bedroom options of varying sizes and floor plans. Rentals and home ownership are mixed and a common area was built into the design, developed by community members. Residents are the owners of the community and make decisions using a consensus model, which allows every voice to be heard.

A recent video shared on social media highlighted an alternative nursing home option functioning in the Netherlands. Instead of the sterile bunkering of seniors who need continuing care, six to eight adults live together in a large house, enjoy shared meals and companionship including several students in their twenties who live rent-free in exchange for 30 hours a month of activities with their older housemates.

As our communities dialogue about the islands’ short and long-term housing needs, I can think of no better time than now to explore ideas for building creative workable alternatives for an aging population that preserves the spirit of community, and the spirit of the islands.