When I was a child, I would often spend time with a group of Italian neighbors in their 80s. We would stroll around the neighborhood together, pick grapes and visit their friends. They were warm, active and social women who were enjoying life, setting a great example of how rich the golden years can be. Aside from grandparents however, my two young children have very limited contact with older adults.
My family will soon be moving to Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BCE), a 36-unit community on 42 shared acres in mid-coast Maine. The homes feature a passive solar design, and a common house with shared space will be constructed soon.
Photo Courtesy Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage
“I think we have an amazing mix, from people in their 20s who are just having babies to people in their 70s,” says Judith Grace, a member of BCE and a grandmother of three. “We couldn’t have planned it better.”
I’m really excited for my children to live in a multi-generational community and form relationships with people of a variety of ages, as it can only enrich their lives. When speaking with other parents of young children living at BCE, they were attracted to the community partially for this reason.
“Many kids know their parents, perhaps their grandparents and 50 or 100 other kids their age,” says Dan Capwell, a member of BCE and a new father. “Kids from cohousing know many older adults, middle-aged people and older kids. It gives them a more well-rounded life experience to draw from.”
By design, BCE members have frequent contact with neighbors. Automobile access is limited and homes are clustered to preserve open space and encourage spontaneous interactions. Voluntary shared meals will be offered a few times a week once the common house is completed and all are encouraged to participate in the community gardens.
“Because kids in cohousing have access to all different ages of people, they tend to have a better relational skill set,” says Allison Piper, an expectant mother and member of BCE. “They are more confident in dealing with people of all ages. They can envision being friends with adults as easily as someone their own age.”
Photo Courtesy Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage
Many older adults are retired and have more time and energy to invest in relationships. Jeffrey Mabee, Judith’s husband, often goes to the sporting events to watch BCE children play and says he feels almost like an uncle or grandfather to them.
“I’m going to have a room in our house that I call my project room, and I think a lot about having children there, sharing in what I’m doing,” says Jeffrey. “I think of the things I can teach children, and it’s part of what attracts me to the cohousing project.”
As much as my children can benefit from living in a multi-generational community, I believe I will too. My mother is deceased and I don’t currently have many relationships with older adults. Many of the BCE seniors have grown children and a wealth of life experiences and wisdom to share.
“I think with age, we can bring a certain calm perspective and ability to look at the bigger picture,” says Jeffrey. “It is less important for me now to get the things that I thought I wanted. What is most important to me is to create love and connection in our community.”
These are lessons that I’m still learning. I often prioritize completing a load of laundry above playing with my kids, or cleaning the bathroom above bathtub play.
Certainly we don’t need to move to a cohousing community to have relationships with older adults. Many churches and religious organizations, neighborhoods, extended families and non-profit organizations have members of all ages. Our local botanic garden has many friendly senior volunteers who go out of their way to converse with my children when we visit and seem to really enjoy the interactions with visitors.
I hope the older adults at BCE also find the relationships with families of young children enriching. “I think seniors aren’t getting the feedback that they are still a really valuable part of the whole fabric of society,” says Judith. “I think there are lots of seniors who have low self-esteem about being old. Our culture promotes that, but I think it is good for seniors to be in a place where their voice is just as important as anyone else’s voice in the community.”
Sarah Lozanova is a mother of two, a holistic parenting coach, and a freelance environmental writer. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has an MBA in sustainable development. View her natural parenting blog at RawMama.org.