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Communal Living


by Victoria Jaycox

The Golden Girls Fantasy
When the TV show "The Golden Girls" first began its long run on television, it was a breakthrough of sorts. This comedy series portrayed four mature single women (two were a mother and daughter) as active, attractive widows sharing a fairly luxurious home in Florida. The characters were quite a contrast to the preoccupation on TV with youth and traditional families.
     But even though the show was produced by a woman, it wasn’t really all that positive about aging. While the "golden girls" presumably weren’t stupid, they were generally portrayed doing stupid things-and then feeling humiliated when caught in the act. Apparently we were all supposed to share the notion that mature widows living together would be airheads in need of constant supervision.
     Although men are twice as likely to live in shared housing, AARP’s Women’s Initiative estimates that there are now 193,000 "Golden Girl" households, made up of women roommates over forty-five. (The vast majority are for women under sixty-five.) But AARP also points out that people who want to start or join these "nontraditional households" may face a number of problems, such as discrimination in zoning, in rental housing, and, where shared ownership is desired, in home purchases.
     Not all that many real-life models exist for mature women who want to live in some type of shared housing. I knew two women, however, who invented their own alternative: Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields. One reason for their success, I believe, was the special community they created which served them both for living and for working.
     In the eleven years these women collaborated-from the time they met until Tish died of cancer at age seventy-one in 1985-they generated all their work out of a funky stucco bungalow in a run-down section of Oakland, California. There the two women lived and slept on the second floor, descending the stairs every day to join one paid secretary and a throng of volunteers who wanted to help them change the world so others wouldn’t have to face the same kind of discrimination they had.
     Theirs was obviously not a conventional living arrangement. And although it would not suit many of us, it provided a rich life for those two women and for those they toiled beside and influenced. The bonds formed in that small community were easily as strong and rewarding as the bonds in any nuclear family.

Tackling Retirement Housing: Edith
In a certain sense, retirement housing is modified communal housing. Although residents usually live in separate units, the complexes offer all kinds of opportunities for interaction with one’s neighbors, from communal meals to sports to social activities. That might seem the best of both worlds, offering both autonomy and support. But until I met Edith, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to live in retirement housing. I tended to agree with Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who referred to them as "padded playpens for wrinkled babies." Like all prejudices, this one dies hard, but Edith certainly made me rethink mine.
     Edith is in her seventies, widowed ten years ago after a long, fascinating marriage lived mostly outside the United States with her Foreign Service husband and two daughters. Tiny and grandmotherly-looking, she is an African American who would seem to fit in wherever she goes because of her attitude that "people are people."
     Edith’s decision to move to the retirement community was precipitated by a series of heart attacks that began in 1989. They made obvious what she already knew: the urban home where she and her husband had lived was too big and hard to keep up. "I didn’t want to feel a slave to a house, taking care of it, wondering whether someone would break in and steal my things. . . . I wanted to concentrate on other things"-like her love of art, literature, and the textiles she studies, collects, and makes by hand. Besides, she missed being around other people all the time and felt scared and lonely a lot.
     Edith spent a lot of time researching all the apartments in the metropolitan area. She chose a huge retirement complex of homes, townhouses, and apartments for older persons living independently. Even though the complex was attractive and well maintained, her friends complained that it was too far away (almost an hour’s drive), and the residents were mostly white and old. Why would she want to isolate herself out there, segregated from the real world? But Edith saw it another way-as an opportunity to be in a community where she could be close to people she could identify with.
     I found Edith happily ensconced in her apartment, full of artifacts and textiles she had collected during the twenty years her family had lived in Africa. But she hadn’t exactly felt love at first sight for her new home. Isolated and blue at first, she actively intervened to make herself feel better, using her lifelong technique of talking herself out of a funk: "You just make up your mind and do it." She began to reach out in a lot of different directions to make new friends, especially ones who share her interests.
     Edith is now the self-appointed liaison between the textile museum in town, where she is a volunteer docent, and residents of the complex who share her passion. She also joined a Great Books group that discusses issues and philosophy.
     Edith has also begun informally to counsel a few newly widowed women. One piece of advice she gives is to set a goal you can easily meet for each day, scheduling just one piece of a larger project for any time period. When the goal is met, you feel a sense of accomplishment, an important step toward beginning to take back control over your life.

Getting the Mix Right
One common feature of living arrangements that seem to work for single women is that they provide both independence and support. Independence is a given when you live alone, but it can also be created in other kinds of living arrangements. Support most often comes from easy access to a community in which to anchor yourself-whether it’s a small town, a large apartment complex, a friendly neighborhood, or just a loyal group of friends. For nearly all of us, such a community is an absolute prerequisite to life on our own. As one widow put it, "I think a single woman needs community more. The community has to be your family."
     Such balanced living arrangements are not readily available, however, to the one woman out of every seven who lives alone. In a society increasingly fragmented and lacking in community, many single women are much more isolated than they would like. They echo the complaint of author Ray Oldenburg about the vanishing of comfortable, accessible loitering places where you are known and can safely hook up with others. His book’s title says it all: The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day.
     Finding just the right mix of voluntary seclusion and fellowship may be the most important challenge you face when choosing where to live. Through trial and error, the women in this book mainly achieved a mix of privacy and companionship that served them well. They settled for a short time or permanently into environments that fit their images of who they are and what they want. And for the most part, they succeeded in finding sheltered spots where a rich soil of solitude and a temperate climate of friends provided everything they needed to blossom forth.

From Single Again: A Guide for Women Starting Over, by Victoria Jaycox. Copyright 1999 by Victoria Jaycox. Excerpted by arrangement with W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. $24.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-233-4830, or click here.