When Heather Bolstler and her husband, Rick, began considering retirement, community was at the top of their desires list. Growing older alongside others seemed less stressful, more affordable and a lot more fun than more traditional paths. The couple began to create a vision of living in a small retirement community of trusted friends. The idea blossomed into reality as the pair, along with two other couples, embarked on the journey of intentional co-habitation—from sharing a rental for two years to building a house together in a rural area that’s four hours from Sydney.
It’s been seven years and the group, known as “Shedders,” is going strong. They call themselves Shedders, in part because of what they’ve had to shed to reap the rewards of communal living—hard-wired habits, unrealized yearnings, judgments, misunderstandings and superfluous belongings. Bolstler has chronicled much of their adventures, mishaps and growth on her blog, Shedders, as well as in a book by the same title.
Calmful Living talked with Bolstler about her unique lifestyle and calmful approach to retirement.
Calmful Living: When you first began contemplating retirement, what were your concerns?
Heather Bolstler: My husband, Rick, and I had a nest egg sufficient to support a careful retirement, but not a generous one. We knew we couldn’t afford to retire in Sydney, an expensive city, although that didn’t matter because we were keen to leave Sydney anyway. A few acres in the country, not far from good services, appealed. But that raised questions of having to start all over again building community, of solitary hours after a lifetime with busy social lives—of loneliness. What about when you lose some of your health? What about when you lose a partner?
These were the issues that concerned us: enough money and a solid community.
CL: How did the idea of co-housing with other seniors come about?
HB: We had friends, two other couples, that we often spent holiday time with. In our fifties, as retirement appeared on the horizon, we began discussing these issues with them. We really enjoyed—and profited from—our holiday time together and wondered about sharing our retirement. Was it conceivable that we could stretch our retirement dollars farther in a shared living situation? Could we avoid the aloneness? Could we provide support for each other?
We voted “yes.” Over the next several years, we resolved the key issues, including a big one: where to live. We bought four acres in the country, four hours outside of Sydney, not far from the ocean, and near a medium-sized town with good facilities. We tested our resilience by finding a big house in the city and renting it together for two years. That worked fine, so we set up a good exit agreement and went ahead with building on our land.
We’ve ended up in what looks like a large modern home. It has three suites where each couple has a good-sized bedroom, sitting room/office, en suite and deck. We share the kitchen, living room(s) and entertainment areas. We’re seven full years into the arrangement now.
CL: How has this lifestyle reduced stress and improved quality of life for all of you?
HB: As you can well imagine, we don’t live stress-free. There are differences of opinion to be worked through, minor grievances, differing priorities. We’ve had to learn to be good at communication and at give and take. But on the big things, the benefits really shine through. We’ve had injuries and surgeries, small and large (for example: four hip replacements, one ankle fusion, one knee reconstruction). It’s been great to share the road to recovery with five other people rather than one overworked and frustrated partner.
I’d say our mental health has benefited as well. There is always someone with whom you can talk things through, to pull you out of a funk, toprovide a different perspective. There are demands on our flexibility that might be challenging short term, but long term are making stronger, more resilient people of us.
We enjoy a lovely home and gardens, with six of us sharing the work. Every summer Rick and I go to Canada, where we were both born, and the house is cared for in our absence.
I also have to mention how good it is to routinely share our evening meals together. Of course there’s always lively conversation, but best of all is someone else cooking the meal two-thirds of the time. A tiny sense of competitiveness means our meals are excellent and varied. As with most things, it wouldn’t be the same with just Rick and me.
CL: How do you handle the obstacles that arise?
HB: We have monthly meetings that are intended to anticipate issues that might come up—expenditures, repairs, activities, guests. Every issue is a potential obstacle, but we find that by staying committed to talking things through, we avert most crises. It can be messy in the middle, but with careful communication, so far we’ve come through every time, with relationships even stronger.
CL: Do you think we will begin to see more of this type of retirement?
HB: Indeed I do. The opportunities and constraints of modern lifestyles are leading us in new directions. Architects are taking an interest; many local governments are making it easier for people to create communal neighborhoods. There are intentional communities, cooperative houses, communes and ecovillages, all with the purpose of bringing people together in a synergistic fashion. Each has its own advantages.
Perhaps our own situation, where we have six people co-habiting the same dwelling and closely sharing many areas of the house, is unusual. It wasn’t easy to make happen, but so far the evidence is that we’re getting the results we wanted.