|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2023|
A Vision for Aging in Rural Appalachia
A moment is delicate – a frost just before the touch of dawn. Seasons melt into years and years into decades. Our breath becomes valuable.
What will become of us in time?
Where will we belong?
To age in rural America can feel cold. Families have disintegrated and communication has become two-dimensional. Many older Americans feel left behind. Their days can turn blue.
As human beings, we require warmth.
Through all stages of life, we need each other.
I witnessed my grandmother age in rural American poverty. She lived deep in the Blue Ridge mountains of Shenandoah, Virginia. Over her life, she weaved a caring community, one that she trusted and gave selflessly to. But as her mobility faded, this network unraveled. Her friends lived miles away and younger relatives moved to pursue careers. While her physical health deteriorated, despondency pressed in upon her, all but crushing her spirit.
For the last 6 years of her life, my father called her every day. His presence was her liferaft. She fought through so much, and I attribute this to his company. In our older years, we all deserve to be seen. We deserve the option of support, dignity, and care. How can we ensure this visibility?
In 2019, just four months after my grandmother passed, a new archetype of living was unveiled 60 miles away – one geared to all the aforementioned tenets.
Emerson Commons is a flourishing community. Children race around a communal green as two neighbors — one young and one old — repair a go-kart on their front porch. This is an Intergenerational Cohousing development thriving in the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, these residents are creating something new for this region.
Some 30 residents share a communal kitchen, common green-space, accessible walking trails, and maintenance duties. These features set the backdrop for a trusting and caring “intentional neighborhood”. Parents leave children in the care of retired neighbors. Our elders may take on roles of mentorship. People look out for each other, and isolation melts away.
My grandmother would have thrived here. But the reality is Cohousing projects are expensive, and many in this region could not afford them. However, two hours East, a model of affordable home ownership has existed since the 1990s. The Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative in Alexandra, Virginia is a limited-equity housing cooperative that is owned and controlled by its low-income residents.
The residents purchased their homes with help from the city, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Reserve. The residents have created a safe space with a community center, public art, and a library. They have set a precedent for affordable ownership.
By creating resident-owned communities at a rural scale, the isolation that creeps through Appalachia’s aging population could be swept away. By reintegrating interested seniors into intentional neighborhoods, everyone could access support, care, and companionship. This may not be for everybody, but this region needs the option. In my grandmother’s case, people were her greatest joy. Helping others was her passion, and she brought radiance to everyone she met. Had she had this archetype as a choice, I have no doubt she would have shone to her fullest potential.
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