Anthony: Pioneer in cohousing for older people speaks Tuesday

November 15, 2013 

Dene Peterson will share her experience at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Central Orange Senior Center, at 103 Meadowlands Drive in Hillsborough.


When Dene Peterson reached age 70 fourteen years ago, she looked around for a place to retire and saw nothing she liked. So she made something new.

In a country where aging can mean isolation – or self-centeredness, or institutionalization – Dene Peterson has helped forge a different model. ElderSpirit in Abingdon, Va., was a first of its kind, an elder cohousing community whose 39 households own or rent their own homes; share common spaces to eat, meet, and meditate; and engage in outward service and inward contemplation. They live together, age together, and maintain that support through illness, disability and death. Its hallmark is its determination to be a mixed-income community where all spiritual paths are respected and encouraged.

Though cohousing is not unknown in our area – thanks to Giles Blunden and other pioneers, we have five or six such developments along with several elder cohousing projects on the drawing board – it is still rare enough to need some explanation.

What it is NOT: a 1960s-style commune.

What it IS: a type of resident-centered housing in which the householders – usually around 20 or more – actively participate in the design and management of their own neighborhoods. Private homes, which boast all the features of conventional homes, are supplemented by extensive common facilities, such as a central green which the homes face and a common house with a communal kitchen, dining room and a suite or two for guests.

Dene Peterson is what is known in the trade as the “burning soul” – that bundle of drive and determination without which no new vision ever comes to fruition. In an article she wrote about her efforts to create ElderSpirit, Dene confesses to being “an accidental developer.” Given her resume, she was certainly an unlikely developer.

A native of Kentucky by birth, at age 18 Dene joined the Glenmary Sisters, a newly formed and nontraditional religious order committed to serving the rural poor in Appalachia and in the northern cities to which they had migrated to find work. When the Glenmary Sisters reached a significant turning point in 1967 and a majority of the nuns left the order, Dene did, too. But like most of them, she continued to pursue service work independent of the institutional hierarchy. In her last position – running the Newman Center at the University of Michigan – she finally added a marketable skill to her developer resume when she managed a $2.5 million capital campaign.

ElderSpirit has become a national model as well as a site for training communities around the country who wish to birth similar late-life experiments. Dene knows the model is working against the grain: “Many of the habits and rules of business-as-usual real estate development are unreasonable barriers, especially now that so many of us in America are entering the last stages of our lives in places inhospitable to aging in community. So what I often stress in my talks to groups is that we all need to invest more energy into making changes in the way we shape neighborhoods.”

Dene Peterson will share her experience at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Central Orange Senior Center, at 103 Meadowlands Drive in Hillsborough. Following Dene’s remarks, I’ll facilitate a conversation process that will allow attendees to connect with others with similar interests and take first steps toward making something new happen.

Tuesday’s program is the final fall event in the monthly series, “Aging in Community: Planning for Our Future,” which explores what is happening in housing innovation both here and across the country. The series is sponsored through a partnership that includes the Orange County Department on Aging, Charles House and Second Journey. Carol Woods and Carolina Meadows Retirement Communities are generous supporters. For full details and a link to the reservation form, go to

Bolton Anthony is the founder of Second Journey, the general editor of the book, “Aging in Community,” and the co-host of “The Heart’s Desire,” a local film series in its third season at the Seymour Center that continues at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21.

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