Chapel Hill News

Cohousing community for LGBT seniors coming to North Durham

The idea arose years ago on group beach trips among Pat McAulay, her wife Margaret Roesch, and their friends.

Wouldn’t it be great if they could all live together after retirement?

In 2014, McAulay and Roesch decided to get serious about it. Most of the friends eventually dropped out, but Village Hearth Cohousing, a community designed for LGBT seniors and friends, is slated for construction in north Durham in 2017.

Cohousing developments – intentional communities of private homes clustered around shared spaces – aren’t new to this area. There are already four in Durham and another two in Chapel Hill/Carrboro.

But Village Hearth’s description as a community for seniors who identify as LGBT and their allies will make it perhaps the first such development in the country.

“It took a lot of us time to come out of the closet; many people wind up going back into the closet to get the care they need” as they age, said McAulay. “We want to be able to live comfortably as ourselves, without having to hide any aspect of ourselves.”

Cohousing could be the perfect vehicle for that. Typically, a cohousing community’s inhabitants naturally gather in public spaces and make decisions consensually, building a sense of interdependence and cooperation. They might share tools, appliances, meals – and even caregivers, in the case of a senior community.

“We’ve seen a real surge in senior cohousing,” said Alice Alexander, executive director of the national Cohousing Association, which is located in Durham. While only 12 senior cohousing communities exist around the country, another 16 are forming.

“Cohousing gives a community of support, of love,” she added. “It gives people a purpose and need: ‘Oh, people are counting on me, we’re having a potluck and I’m supposed to bring my special dish.’”

Bringing the idea of Village Hearth Cohousing to fruition, though, has required an enduring vision and an enormous amount of work.

McAulay and Roesch – a former middle school teacher and music therapist, respectively, who’ve lived in Durham for over a decade, except for a short stint in south Florida – kicked off their effort in 2014 with a trip to a regional cohousing conference in Boulder, Co. They visited several senior cohousing developments along the way, and one of them, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, was particularly inspiring. It had small, one-story houses linked by paved paths, perfect for older adults with bad knees who might eventually be using walkers.

In 2015, the pair hired Katie McCamant as a consultant. She and her husband, Chuck Durrett, helped bring the concept of cohousing to this country in 1988 after living in Denmark, which boasts over 700 cohousing communities. McCamant has helped McAulay and Roesch navigate the process, things like talking to the local planning commission, finding land, and figuring out marketing options.

“We conference call with her regularly and she gives us a list of to-dos,” McAulay said.

In August, after six months and visits to 74 properties in Durham and Orange counties, the duo found a 15-acre plot with everything they were looking for. Located off of Infinity Road just east of the intersection with Roxboro Road, the property is wooded and relatively flat, with a large cleared area that includes several majestic oak trees. And it’s less than 20 minutes from downtown Durham.

While residents in nearby Eno Trace have had concerns about the imminent construction, McAulay says there’s notably been virtually no mention of the community’s LGBT orientation. “It’s been amazing,” she said. “Everyone who wrote us said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood!’”

The next step is a series of four design workshops with Durrett, a prominent cohousing architect who has written several books about the practice. The first workshop is scheduled for Jan 21-24.

But moving forward hinges on one major element: finding new members. So far, Village Hearth consists of eight households, including McCaulay and Roesch. To acquire a construction loan, they’ll need a total of 20 or 21 households.

It’s not an easy decision to make, McAulay acknowledges. “These are seniors who are looking at investing a lot of money really late in life,” she said. “You have to be able to admit you’re getting old and you’re eventually going to die.”

Christopher Ross and Allan Keech, a semi-retired contemplative priest and an artist, are ready to think about the future. Former New Yorkers who were seeking a natural setting without the attendant isolation, they happened on the idea of cohousing and then found Village Hearth. They signed on last year.

“It’s the best of both worlds for us,” said Ross. An introvert, he admits he never pictured himself as the “cohousing type,” and is surprised at how committed he’s become.

The LGBT element was a big draw, but not the only one. “In New York, there was this pride about not knowing your neighbor – but now it’s time to not only have neighbors but to know them,” he said. “To be among people who care about you.”

Cohousing talk

Chuck Durrett of the California-based McCamant and Durrett Architects will speak about senior cohousing communities at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 4907 Garrett Road in Durham. $10 suggested donation.