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For the aging, a commune-like alternative in NY

Tuesday - 2/26/2013, 8:12pm  ET

This 2011 photo provided by the Fellowship Community shows a garden where plants for herbal teas are grown for the residents of the Fellowship Community, along with herbs spices for cooking in kitchens of the nonprofit group in a commune-like setting in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. Residents of the community's adult home are encouraged to contribute to the community by working at the dairy, the pottery studio, the 33-acre farm and other activities. (AP Photo/Fellowship Community, Miklos Gratzer)

JIM FITZGERALD
Associated Press

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?"

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