Elder co-housing project is aimed at gay women
A UW lecturer is helping to pioneer a community for women, especially lesbians, who want to grow old together.
Seattle Times staff reporter
When they were younger, Nancy Nystrom and her friends joked about one day living together in a home for old lesbians.
But as they aged, the joke grew less funny. Lesbian women and gay men often go back in the closet in later life, fearing discrimination and even abuse if they need care.
Why wasn't there a special place for them?
Soon there will be, on a quiet, wooded hillside in Bremerton.
That's where Nystrom is helping pioneer a self-planned and affordable community for women — especially lesbians — who want to grow old together on their own terms. The experiment is not only news in the gay and lesbian community, it's an early sign that the elder co-housing movement emerging nationwide has arrived in Washington state.
"This is extremely possible with any group of people, gay or straight," said Nystrom, a longtime social activist and University of Washington lecturer in social work. "If you have a small group of friends all dedicated to the idea of having a healthy old age, you could do this."
Looking for a place where they can be independent but not be alone, Nystrom and a small group of women from around the country — aged 55 to 78 and predominantly lesbians — are developing KitsHarbour, an interconnected, two-house project they will own and run together.
Over the last several years, they've purchased and started to remodel two large side-by-side houses to accommodate frailty. They've hammered out the legalities of ownership, agreed on rules for living in community together and successfully lobbied the county to stop the traffic at the end of their road.
Nystrom, her partner and another woman moved in about three years ago and own the homes for now. But four others — a doctor, nurse, author and retired government bureaucrat — are expected to arrive after retirement over the next few years and start to participate financially. Two of the initial seven women are straight.
The cost for all will be a one-time $2,500 membership fee and $650 a month. Fifteen women are on a waiting list.
"We're not time-worried," Nystrom said. "We'd rather see it done right."
Nystrom, who talks about KitsHarbour around the country, discussed the project at the first Northwest Forum on Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender Aging, held Friday and Saturday at the UW. The public event — a collaboration of several groups — aimed to provide education on the needs and challenges facing the older LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.
Co-housing communities — created and managed by residents — have been around since the early 1990s. Scores are now scattered across the country, including some in Washington state. But only in recent years have a very few been started that focus exclusively on elders, such as the 30-household ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Va., and eight-household Glacier Circle Senior Community in Davis, Calif.
At KitsHarbour, everyone must have long-term care insurance and will be allowed to stay until permanent, round-the-clock nursing care is needed. But it will be fine to need help with activities such as cooking, walking, bathing or taking medication. When a resident dies or leaves, her financial share will remain in the corporation for the benefit of future residents.
In the future, the homes will be connected by a breezeway wide enough for wheelchairs and will have additional bedrooms and baths and three kitchens for residents to cook communally or individually. Plans include installing an inside elevator and an outdoor tram down the hillside to the lower yard.
Right now the backyard is being turned into a nature preserve with all kinds of bird feeders, special plants and a tree hollowed out on top to attract nesting owls. Eight raised garden beds are being built and stairs leading to the lower yard are designed for people using walkers.
"The major theme is like-minded women who want to be together ... work together ... support each other," said Teresa Jones, who is Nystrom's partner and also a UW lecturer.
That doesn't mean staying apart from the rest of the world. Connecting with the larger community is a priority. Nystrom already serves on the stewardship committee for the local nature preserve, and Jones belongs to the Dahlia Society.
Nearby neighbors support this new kind of commune in their midst.
"Women live longer than men. Being in isolation is one of the worst things when we grow older," said Sarna Becker, a community-college biology teacher, who lives next door with her husband and two young sons.
She's also glad it's open to heterosexuals, because housing can become an issue for many women as they age.
Rebecca Wilson and her husband are neighbors in their 50s who moved from out of state and have no children. They're hoping the women of KitsHarbour will become like an extended family, and the couple even plan to create a path connecting their backyards.
Then as they all grow old, says Wilson, they can look out for each other, share interests and help with rides to the doctor, grocery shopping and cooking communal meals. "So we're connected deeper than neighbors who just come and go."
Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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