Happy together

Eight couples want to create their own community as they age, either in Loring Park or on the Chain of Lakes

Last spring Kristen Dulac of Edina Realty had a unique lunch meeting in downtown Minneapolis. The seasoned condo specialist was being enlisted to help with a novel plan created by 16 friends and neighbors from the Lowry Hill neighborhood who decided they wanted to downsize — together.

The group — eight couples ranging in age from their 50s to 70s — want to sell their homes and buy condos in the same building or neighboring buildings as a way to age in place as a community. “When they told me what they wanted to do I thought ‘This is going to really be an adventure,’” says Dulac. “I was excited because it’s a whole new idea, and the thought of taking all the neighbors with is great.”

Lowry Hill Gang

According to ringleader Harriet Barlow, the concept of creating a new community with old friends has been percolating for a while amongst the group, dubbed “the Lowry Hill Gang” by Dulac. “I think the idea bubbled up from many different conversations about aging and watching our elderly parents struggling to find that fine line between interdependence and total dependence,” explains Barlow.

By living in a centralized, maintenance-free urban location the gang would be free to lead independent lives while easily being able to socialize and look after each other — a naturally occurring retirement community of sorts. Eventually Barlow sees the group pooling resources to support a visiting nurse or purchase an extra condo for children and relatives to stay in when visiting. “This way we can cooperate on shopping excursions, and if someone is ill they have five or six friends to look in on them or spend time with them, which is easier to do if we aren’t spread all over town,” says Barlow.

Although the idea is only in the “early stages of imagining” according to Barlow, the gang has begun looking at potential properties and neighborhoods that would accommodate their wish list: accessible to the Wedge co-op in Southwest Minneapolis, near a garden or park, committed to green living, and close to paths for walking and biking. So far that adds up to Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis or the Chain of Lakes in Southwest Minneapolis. Because everyone will be buying condos and moving separately (“We’re not asking people to sign in blood,” says Barlow of the autonomous plan) Dulac doesn’t need to limit the search to buildings with many vacancies or new construction.

Do-it-yourself collaborative living

While the Lowry Hill Gang’s plan is unique, the idea of collaborating to create a community has long been familiar to people in the world of cohousing, a concept growing in the U.S. after originating in Europe. According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, cohousing is collaborative housing in which residents are consciously committed to living as a community. Typically that entails designing a community from the ground up, with individual homes for each family but plenty of common space for interaction — including regularly eating meals together. Minnesota has two existing cohousing communities in Rushford and St. Louis Park, but Kathryn Sikkink, a professor at the University of Minnesota and member of the Lowry Hill Gang, says their plan is different.

“We don’t have the assets to do genuine cohousing, which basically entails building your own neighborhood,” says Sikkink. “That isn’t realistic. We don’t want a large tract of land to build on, we want to find something just short of what is called cohousing.” Sikkink has owned a duplex with another family for more than 20 years and sings the praises of DIY collaborative living. When both families in the duplex had small children they had meals together twice a week, shared childcare, and celebrated birthdays as a group. “We thought it was a wonderful arrangement because there’s a lot of things about living close to friends that make life easier,” says Sikkink. That’s a concept she says will easily translate as they age. “If you already have a community of friends why not organize into a support group to live together as you get older? Why go to an old folks home with people you don’t know?”

Because many of the couples are at different stages of life — Sikkink, for example, still has a 16-year-old at home while others are fully retired empty nesters — Sikkink predicts their community will be created in waves over the next few years. “The issue of being on different timetables is daunting, with work and children and health issues we’re all moving at different paces so it’s very hard for any group to say OK, on D-day we’re all going to move simultaneously,” explains Sikkink. “It will be a gradual plan and some have to dare to make the first move and if the rest of us like it will want to move there.”

For Barlow, the fact that the gang is moving forward on the long-talked-about idea shows their commitment to aging on their own terms. “We realized that for all of the political values of our generation we’d all postponed thinking about how to do that next stage, and really the time has run out to not think about it,” says Barlow. “And it’s better to think about it with kindred spirits than worry about it alone.”

Monica Wright is assistant editor of Minnesota Good Age.

The Lowry Hill Gang
Eight couples seeking:
— individual condo units, purchased a
— in the same neighborhood
— near a garden or park and walking trails
— accessible to the Wedge co-op in South Minneapolis
— committed to green living