Watching her father struggle with daily tasks and settle into isolation in his senior years had a profound effect on Pat Darlington. She saw firsthand the problems people living the “active, independent senior lifestyle” so often advertised on sales brochures can have as their health or memory begins to fail and she vowed to avoid that.
Even though her father was living in a planned community designed for senior citizens, it was more like a resort than somewhere he could age in place.
The first few years were great, but as he began to develop dementia, neighbors stopped inviting him for rounds of golf or social events. He spent more and more time alone in a house he couldn’t tell from his neighbors’ homes because they all looked exactly alike, as other community members line-danced in the town square.
Eventually, he had trouble finding his driveway and couldn’t operate his car safely, but none of his neighbors mentioned it to the family until his children had already figured it out for themselves and come to take his keys.
“They all said they didn’t want to get involved,” Darlington said.
Her father’s experience led Darlington to the idea of co-housing: Fully-equipped, private homes clustered around a common area that encourages the people living there to interact with each other. It’s a concept that was pioneered in Denmark, where about 8 percent of the population lives in a co-housing situation, according to a March 2016 Huffington Post article.
Oakcreek Community is one of a handful of co-housing developments for seniors in the U.S. and the only one in Oklahoma.
Darlington and fellow Oakcreek owner Kay Stewart were the first to join forces in 2009 and try to create something no one in Stillwater had seen, few people understood and most banks were afraid of.
Finding land was the first challenge, then came the challenge of actually getting the 24 homes built on their 7.5-acre lot on North Husband Street.
Owner Steve Tweedie said when he and his wife Pat first moved in, people would often ask him, “Is it a commune?”
His answer was, “We’re not in a condominium and we’re not in a commune but we were in a place that has characteristics of each.”
It’s that way by design.
“A lot of people don’t get that this is way bigger than building houses,” Darlington said. “It’s a wild experiment.”
Her father’s community sold the idea of independence but it’s the interdependence of Oakcreek owners that makes it work, Darlington said.
“Independence is the greatest myth perpetrated on us, ever,” Darlington said. “No one is truly independent. Interdependence is what we were made for. Independence is actually isolation and as we age, isolation means death.”
Stewart says it’s an old idea with a new twist, similar to living in a small town community where everyone knows everyone and looks out for each other.
The owners all have unique skill sets and contribute in ways that suit their abilities and talents. They share community meals every five nights and have special events and gatherings in the community house that provides a large common space and room for guests.
Co-housing is an alternative to the choices people have traditionally had to stay in their own homes and spend most of their time alone, move in with their children or be institutionalized, Darlington said.
Having people watching out for you helps with the practical aspects of aging but the consensus government, shared work and shared spaces that are part of a place like Oakcreek Community meets important emotional and psychological needs. Having a sense of purpose and the social interaction that comes with living in community have both been shown to be vital to healthy aging, she said.
All that community, and the consensus government Oakcreek owners have adopted means it takes some adjustment when moving there from a conventional neighborhood.
“You come from a life where you make a decision and act on it,” owner Doug Sander said. “Here you have to listen to the counsel of others who will be affected by it ... When you go through that you often wind up with a much better decision than you could have come up with on your own.”
Stewart says it’s about realizing you’re deciding what’s best for the whole community not just what’s best for you.
Living so closely tied to others makes you become a better person than you might be if you were just thinking about yourself, Darlington said.
“If we can’t figure out how to solve the problem of my yappy dog, there’s no hope for the world,” she said. “We have worked through so many things and it feels delightful.”
The owners are enjoying their homes, the surrounding green space their acreage provides and their decision to maintain active control of their lives instead of living in a community they say “is like a cruise ship only you don’t go anywhere.” That’s why they call themselves “owners” rather than residents.
“We want to paddle,” said owner Cheryl Wilson, who recently moved from California when she learned of Oakcreek.
As the original owners enter their fifth year of living at Oakcreek Community, they are beginning to look ahead.
Two of them are in their 90s and still living in their homes with a little help from their friends. Stewart said she’s hopeful they will be able to live out their lives at Oakcreek.
“We’re going to see if we can’t get them all the way through and I’ll bet we can,” she said.