For the aging, a commune-like alternative in NY

February 26, 2013 - 7:29 PM
Aging America Commune

This 2011 photo provided by the Fellowship Community shows the Child's Garden at the Fellowship Community, a nonprofit group in a commune-like setting north of New York City in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. It takes an unusual approach to care of the elderly, and seeks to integrate aging residents with other members of the group, including co-workers and their children. (AP Photo/Fellowship Community, Miklos Gratzer)

CHESTNUT RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) — At the Fellowship Community's adult home, workers are paid not according to what they do, but what they need; aging residents are encouraged to lend a hand at the farm, the candle shop or the pottery studio; and boisterous children are welcome around the old folks.

It's a home for the elderly in a commune-like setting, 30 miles from Manhattan, that takes an unusual approach, integrating seniors into the broader community and encouraging them to contribute to its welfare.

"It's a great place to live, and I think there's probably no better place in the world to die," says Joanne Karp, an 81-year-old resident who was supposed to be in her room recovering from eye surgery but instead was down the hall at the piano, accompanying three kids learning to play the recorder.

The 33-bed adult home is at the center of Fellowship Community, a collection of about 130 men, women and children founded in 1966 that offers seniors — including the aging baby boom generation — an alternative to living out their final years in traditional assisted-living homes or with their grown sons and daughters.

At most adult homes, a resident in decline would eventually have to go to a hospital or nursing home. But Fellowship has an exemption from state law that allows dying residents to stay there because "people have wanted to stay, and we have wanted to keep them," said administrator Ann Scharff, who helped found the community.

"We provide a space in which people can prepare to die in a way that is accepted and nourishing to them and fraught with meaning," Scharff said. "It's not something you run away from, but it's part of the whole spectrum of life, just as birth is part of life and is prepared for."

Situated on a hilltop in suburban Rockland County, Fellowship looks a bit like a village out of the past. Besides the farm and the pottery and candle shops, there are a dairy barn with 10 cows, a print shop, a metal shop, a "weavery" and a wood shop.

The 33-acre farm goes beyond organic, running on "biodynamic," or self-sustaining, principles, as much as a small farm can, said Jairo Gonzalez, the head gardener. Solar panels sparkle on the barn roof, and cow manure becomes compost.

Most of the adult home workers live in buildings surrounding it, as do about 35 independent seniors who don't yet need the services but plan to live out their days in the community. At meals, elders, workers and children dine together.

"We don't subscribe to 'Children should be seen and not heard,'" Scharff said.

Caring for the elderly is the main activity, but all the workers also have other responsibilities.

"In a typical work week, someone will be inside helping the elderly, meaning bringing meals, bathing, meds," said Will Bosch, head of the community's board of trustees. "But they'll also be doing building and grounds maintenance, planting, harvesting, milking."

Organizers decline to call it a commune but concede the spirit is similar. The philosophy behind it is called anthroposophy, "a source of spiritual knowledge and a practice of inner development," according to The Anthroposophical Society in America.

Elder care is practiced in somewhat similar fashion in at least two other anthroposophy-inspired communities: Camphill Ghent in Chatham, N.Y., and Hesperus Village in Vaughan, Ontario, near Toronto.

The area around Fellowship has several other organizations with ties to anthroposophy, including a private school, a bookstore and a co-op grocery that sells some of the community's crops. Fewer than half the adult home residents at Fellowship Community have any connection to anthroposophy, at least when they enter, Scharff said.

"We're an age-integrated community built around the central mission of care of the elderly," Bosch said. "The members want to be of service. They come because they know this is a place where they can contribute."

So Karp, the 81-year-old, teaches music and entertains the community at the piano.

"I think the reason people really appreciate this place is because they can be active and they can contribute and there's always something that needs doing," Karp said. "And it's nice when kids are glad to see you."

Other residents, or members, as they're called, have found similar niches.

Gwen Eisenmann, 91, a retired poet, leads poetry discussions and also likes to set the table before meals. Larry Fox, 74, a psychologist, treats patients at the Fellowship's medical office and said, "Where could I be at my age and be so happy to get up in the morning and look forward to the day?"

It's difficult, Bosch said, to find people to sign up for the communal life and work. It appeals to "people who are dismayed with the materialism of the world and are trying to get above it," he said. "People who are interested in an alternative lifestyle , not based on pocketing the most money they can for the least amount of work."

When elders come in, they pay a "life lease" of $27,500 to $50,000, depending on the space they will occupy in the adult home or the "lodges" surrounding it. In addition, they pay $700-$1,500 per month in rent, and up to $3,000 a month for care, depending on what they need.

Revenue from the adult home provides 60 percent of the nonprofit Fellowship Community's $3 million operating budget, with the rest coming from donations and the sale of produce, milk and crafts, home officials said. Donations completely fund the capital budget, make up any annual shortfall and subsidize the adult home.

The adult home is licensed and inspected by the state and is in good standing. It doesn't accept federal or state aid. Workers are paid according to need, and their housing, food and transportation — there are community cars — are included.

"Two people doing the same job might get very different stipends," Bosch said. "One might have children, one might not."

Matt Uppenbrink, 44, a former businessman in the fashion world who now lives at Fellowship with his wife and two children, is on the community's "financial circle" but also does his bit in the adult home.

"When I got my MBA, I didn't think I'd be helping somebody to go to the toilet," he said. "But years ago, with Grandma and Grandpa in the house, that's how it was done. What we do here is like helping a friend or helping a loved one. My dad is in a nursing home, and I wish he had this instead."

Rachel Berman, a 47-year-old former New York City teacher, lives at the community with her 10-year-old daughter.

"We cook, we farm, we care for the elderly," Berman said. "I was in the Peace Corps, and I lived for a while on a kibbutz in Israel, so community life was important to me."

The workers "get to see the stages of an elder's journey, different approaches to the end of life," Uppenbrink said. "You get to see the process happen. It gives you something to work with in terms of your own future."

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Online:

Fellowship Community: http://www.fellowshipcommunity.org