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#325 ElderSpirit brings depth and dignity to aging

By Cathryn Wellner / June 9, 2012

Photo of Dene Peterson, from the video by Mike Nichols

Until a reader (thanks, Shelby) sent me the link, I had never heard of ElderSpirit. Now, having wandered around the Web, learning about Geraldine “Dene” Peterson and her dream of a community of elders, I have tears in my eyes as I type. The community she created is a model for the kind of setting where I would be honoured to spend my last years on the planet.

Here’s a brief excerpt from a wonderful article by Drew Leder. You’ll want to read the whole thing.

Though ElderSpirit upholds the traditional association of elderhood with wisdom and spirituality, overstating the radical nature of this experiment in communal living — and its importance — is difficult. ElderSpirit was the first senior cohousing community founded in the United States. It is also the first model of a residential setting where elders of all faith traditions (or none) can use their later years to support one another, serve social justice and the planet Earth, deepen their contemplative practice, and grow closer to God/Spirit.

In a land where aging can mean isolation — or self-centeredness — or institutionalization — Dene has shown us a different model. Dwelling just off the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail, in Abingdon, Virginia, ElderSpirit residents own or rent their own homes — the community is resolutely mixed income — yet share common spaces to eat, meet, meditate, and worship. They are engaged in outward service and inward contemplation. They live together, age together, and maintain that support through illness, disability, and death.

In the circle of friends we see regularly here in Kelowna, nearly all of us are in our 60s, 70s or early 80s. We are keenly aware that the health most of us enjoy today is a fragile gift that can be taken away at any time. We guard that health through the choices we make in our lifestyles and in our connections with each other, but we are well aware that we are moving through the last chapters of our lives.

Sometimes we talk about the years ahead, how we will navigate them, what supports we need from the community and from each other. None of us is keen to spend our last years housed with strangers with whom we have only decline in common. The co-housing model of ElderSpirit is the pattern we sometimes talk about but have never seen in practice.

At Trailview in Abingdon, Virginia – thanks to the passion and drive of Dene Peterson – that pattern exists. ElderSpirit Community is a spiritually diverse, mixed-income, mixed ownership (rental and owned units) community, the first of its kind in the States. The Values statements cover all of the concerns that face many of us as we age.

I’m inspired by the ElderSpirit Community and see in it the kind of pattern for dignified aging that would allow all of us to contribute to the community until the moment of our death. I hope this model becomes the norm instead of an outlier.

Thank you, Dene Peterson for creating a model worth studying and emulating.

Watch Mike Nichols’ lovely tribute to Geraldine “Dene” Peterson in the video below.


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Jamie Tubmen - June 13, 2013

Thanks, Cathryn, for your blog mentioning ElderSpirit. It gives hope to all of us here in ElderSpirit Community at Trailview, too! We have linked to your blog from our website: http://www.elderspirit.org

    Cathryn Wellner - June 13, 2013

    I’m honoured you linked my blog to your site, Jamie. ElderSpirit offers the kind of village atmosphere that takes the fear out of aging and very likely keeps people healthy longer.

Kathy Abell - July 16, 2013

I’m proud to call Geraldine Peterson my aunt…so proud of how God has worked thru her….a true role model…

Pat O Daniel - July 31, 2013

Aunt Geraldine is a special woman! I admire everything about her!

    Cathryn Wellner - July 31, 2013

    She is an inspiration to me, even though I haven’t met her. You’re lucky to have such an admirable aunt.

Mary Peterson George - August 27, 2013

We are truly blessed to have an aunt like Geraldine Peterson as a role model. I, too, admire everything about her. She and all her siblings have given us so much of which to be proud.

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