Design for Living Over 55
Phoenix Commons represents a new way to age in place, but this cohousing development seeks elders fired up for change.
Jyoti Rae, Susan Blumstein, Rose Mark, and Larry Beresford prepare a meal in the well-appointed communal kitchen.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
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Rose K. Mark, her husband, Larry Beresford, and Sue Stewart are cooking dinner for 20 people. Luckily, they’ve got room to work. This open, communal kitchen has two chef’s stoves, two dishwashers, and some 30 feet of counter space.
As they prep two kinds of pizza, a garden salad, and made-from-scratch pudding, they can look out over an airy dining area holding a dozen blond wood tables and Eames-style chairs to see the Oakland estuary.
Outside floor-to-ceiling windows, joggers and dog walkers pass on the waterfront promenade; beyond the promenade, kayaks and skiffs skim the sparkling water.
It’s close to dinnertime at Phoenix Commons, an intentional community for people 55 and older, designed with private living quarters and extensive, shared public space. It’s dedicated to creating an expansive and exciting way to age in place.
To the left of the dining room is a lounge, furnished in tones of slate gray, burnt orange, and avocado green. The furniture is modern and hip; this could be any Oakland waterfront loft development—the designer has been careful to make the couches and arm chairs comfortable, as well as stylish. Unfinished concrete walls and industrial gray tweed carpeting add to the industrial-chic vibe.
The space extends back behind these areas into a series of semi-open rooms. More than 18,000 square feet contain a media lounge, a library, another seating area, a gym, an office, and a courtyard with a hot tub.
It’s everything an affluent and active person would want from downtown loft living—and almost nothing you’d expect to find in a senior development. That’s the point. The 31 “old” people in Phoenix Commons are fomenting revolution. They’re determined to boot everything society thinks about “seniors” and “senior housing” off the dock.
Right now, except for the cooks in the kitchen, these common areas are empty. That’s typical for Phoenix Commons, too; it’s not a place where people sit around. They’re out kayaking, volunteering, going to Pilates, and planning hiking trips to the French Alps.
At 5:30 p.m., people begin to filter in to the lounge. Members of the group that gathers this evening are all over 55, although beyond that, it’s hard to guess their ages. Silver hair, dyed hair, T-shirts, silk blouses, stylish sandals, athletic shoes—it’s definitely East Bay style for these women and men. They chat in small groups, clearly comfortable and engaged with each other.
A bell rings at 5:45, and they make their way to the counter to serve themselves. There are wine and agua fresca and plenty left over for seconds.
There doesn’t seem to be any of that high-school anxiety about who to sit with. Conversation is convivial; these people have plenty to talk about. They also know each other well, much better than a typical group of condo dwellers. That’s because they’ve been through the crucible of cohousing development.
Cohousing is a methodology for creating very small, close-knit neighborhoods within urban, suburban, or rural settings. There are two parts to it: design of the physical spaces and a process for the residents to make decisions by consensus.
“Community” is a nebulous word that gets tossed around a lot, and it surfaces constantly when you talk to Phoenix Commons residents. But cohousing is carefully designed to produce a sense of community by its dictionary definition: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”
Most cohousing projects begin with a core group of people who come together because they crave that perhaps-mythical small-town ethos of interdependency. They may work with a facilitator or an architect; they meet regularly for what could be years before they ever break ground on a project. While cohousing groups usually self-finance and must identify and purchase the site for the project, Chris Zimmerman, founder of Phoenix Commons, knew this method wouldn’t work for his target market: people who were late in life, looking to downsize, and possibly move closer to their children, but weren’t ready to fade into senescence.
Phoenix Commons, however, isn’t a safe harbor for the last decades of life; it’s an intentional community dedicated to creating a better model for aging in place, one that includes comfort, friendship, mutual support, and self-governance.
On a recent afternoon, sunlight floods the walkway along the fourth floor of Phoenix Commons. The 63,537-square-foot building’s long axis faces west, and its length is bisected by an outdoor corridor that brightens the inner units and provides for individual minipatios and a wide concrete path lined with planters. A couple of elderly dogs soak up the warmth. Front doors and kitchen windows delineate the private dwellings, which range from studios to two-bedroom units.
There’s a code for residents, Mark said. “If the shades are down, I want to be alone. If the shades are up, wave or stop by. I’m open to social interactions.”
Chris Zimmerman, 69, has spent his career building and managing senior-oriented projects. The portfolio of AEC Living, the Alameda-based company he founded, includes Waters Edge nursing home; assisted living facilities Elders Inn and The Lodge; and AES Therapy & Fitness, a rehab and fitness center.
It’s a family business. His wife, Darnelle Zimmerman, is chief nursing officer, directing the care programs at all the facilities. Daughter Lauren Zimmerman Cook, CEO of AEC Living, is a licensed California nursing home administrator. Her brother, Stephen Zimmerman, COO of AEC Living, has a master’s degree in gerontology and is a licensed residential care for the elderly administrator. He manages The Lodge and serves as sales director of Phoenix Commons.
Cook and Stephen Zimmerman spent their childhoods observing their parents’ work and helping out. The whole family moved into The Lodge for nine months while Chris and Darnelle Zimmerman were getting The Lodge up and running. The siblings also publish Alameda Senior Magazine.
The Phoenix Commons concept began 10 years ago, when the Zimmermans decided to build a cohousing project. “We learned that, in health care, the more you can create a sense of community on a human scale and do human things together, the quality of life is much better than if you’re dealing with things only clinically,” said Chris Zimmerman.
Chris Zimmerman was also feeling the effects of his own aging and not totally liking it. For him, cohousing represented “the way I wanted to retire—to have peers who will help me with my load, do stuff together.”